For much of his youth, keyboardist and composer Bryan McAllister wanted to be a human rights advocate at the United Nations. Just before college, the desire to pursue a career as a jazz musician overtook these plans and his life took a sudden detour. In his debut album release, Very Stable Genius, McAllister draws on his passion for social justice and examines our current American cultural landscape through sardonic compositions inspired by the bizarre statements and actions of the man elected to the presidency.
In today’s American political climate, the constant and confused media maelstrom can leave many people wondering whether to laugh or cry. For many, the president is a symptom and symbol of modern racism, misogyny, and income inequality, and yet he is a consistent source of laughably egotistical quotes and preposterous political posturing. On Very Stable Genius, Bryan McAllister enters the fray, attempting to explore the seriousness of these social injustices while using the ridiculousness of the current presidential administration as an entry point into such reflections.
The compositions on Very Stable Genius flirt with the comical and absurd, and employ improvisation to address the emotional complexity of today’s social issues. McAllister’s chosen personnel reflects the album’s dual themes as well. He formed this quintet with the musical voices of each individual player in mind and wrote the music for their specific sounds from the beginning. Levi Saelua’s clear and lyrical alto saxophone sound is front and center for the majority of the compositions, and sometimes backed up or opposed by Brandon Sherman’s expressive, dark trumpet tone. McAllister guides the rhythm section and glues the band together with chunky, rhythmic keyboard interplay, steering his compositions from the center of the band. Miguel Jimenez-Cruz’s powerful drums drive the sound, and bassist Zack Teran creates deep soundscapes on the electric bass that provide a strong foundation for the music. The final track of the album features revered saxophonist Peter Epstein, while Levi Saelua’s bass clarinet provides a third voice for a machine-like, catchy composition that ends the album with an ellipsis rather than a period.
Expressive melodies jump in and out of the churning, driving grooves on Very Stable Genius, and the interplay between horns and rhythm section is expressed in many different ways throughout the album. On the track, “Mueller,” the way the alto saxophone and trumpet find their way to join in the relentless percussive and mechanical agitations is wildly reminiscent of a chase scene. Rhythmic and cyclical keyboard parts lie at the heart of many of McAllister’s compositions, like the keyboard riff at the beginning of “Fake News” that recalls the sound of a breaking news bulletin. After this springboard the bass and drums quickly enter with a dark and slow-moving character, setting the scene for snaking melodic counterpoint from the horns. Conversely, on “State Of The Uniom” McAllister strips the band down to a trio and takes the melodic reigns for a moment to provide a quiet and mournful meditation on the suffering felt by many in the face of hatred.
Bryan McAllister’s focus on concept drives this project and results in a unique approach to composition and arrangement. The themes of duality, the juxtaposition of comedy and grave seriousness, and the assembly of players who’s individual sounds that reflect that contrast, are all carefully sewn together in different compositional shapes throughout the album.
McAllister’s interests in human rights and his decision to employ his voice through musical means make this work all the more interesting. Focusing directly on the man who symbolizes hatred, and doing so through comedy, is an intriguing way to reflect on the state of human rights in modern day America, but McAllister does so with a thoughtful approach and a steady hand. While the titles and compositional humor provide a spark of light-hearted comic relief, the improvisation and interaction of the band reveal much more of the story. This is music reflective of a moment, in all ways: from the comedy surrounding the current administration, to the sobering truths of life in a society where even basic human rights are denied to so many.
Putting this work forward as a debut, Bryan McAllister’sVery Stable Geniusshows the world a unique new voice, both in concept and composition. While McAllister sees this quintet as an ongoing project, he sincerely hopes that he will not be writing music about this president for much longer. Curing a symptom is not the same as curing a disease, and McAllister will have plenty to write about as he tries to inspire reflection and positive change through music. Great music can inspire more questions than it answers. The biggest question we are left with: “What’s next?”