The Seven Rays
By Andrew Janak
Veteran tenor man Jerry Bergonzi’s latest release, The Seven Rays, is an attempt to musically portray philosophical concepts that have permeated religion and astrology over the past 1500 years. According to the album’s liner notes, the rays represent “particular ideas and types of people” and Bergonzi composed original compositions for each of the seven rays, along with an eighth original “Sun Worship Ritual” that brings the album to a close. The strong compositions could be enjoyed even without knowing the back-story of the seven rays, as they carry Bergonzi’s hallmarks of inventive harmonies and quirky rhythms, but the extra context only enhances the listening experience. Bergonzi is joined by trumpeter Phil Grenadier, a frequent collaborator who has recorded several albums with him, and a European rhythm section composed of Carl Winther on piano, Jonny Aman on bass, and Anders Morgensen on drums. Bergonzi has frequently used this rhythm section for his European tours and the familiarity with one another is evident in the recording.
The opening track “1st Ray: Intention” is burning fast but maintains a light texture throughout. Morgensen’s sensitive drumming allows plenty of space for the soloists to fill, as Bergonzi adds a fiery improvisation showing off his formidable technique and ability to superimpose polyrhythms over the main pulse. Grenadier and Winther both offer spirited solos and the tune comes to a close with a short recap of a fragment of the opening melody.
“2nd Ray: Magnetism” opens freely with Bergonzi improvising a cadenza along with Winther’s chordal accompaniment. The rhythmic ambiguity of the opening sets up the restless feel of the composition to come. Bergonzi slyly transitions into the main theme of the piece with the rest of the band joining in for a lyrical, hypnotic melody set over light straight eighths in the drums. Bergonzi’s writing for the small ensemble shines here as the tenor and trumpet frontline deftly moves in and out of harmony (often open intervals), giving the piece an unsettled feeling. Aman gets a chance to offer a lyrical bass solo, followed by a slightly more virtuosic improvisation by Winther. The melody returns, ending on a mysterious and slightly unstable final chord.
On “6th Ray: Devotion” superimposes a lyrical, almost folk-like melody over McCoy Tyner-influenced quartal harmony in the piano. This duality allows for the improvisers to toggle between space-filled, singable melodies and intense pentatonic modern jazz lines. Bergonzi utilizes false fingerings and overtones to add to the intensity of his improvisation, while the rhythm section stays relatively subdued underneath him, highlighting the contrasting elements of the composition. The tune ends with Bergonzi and Grenadier improvising simultaneously over a rhythm section vamp. Playing off one another but never having one voice overshadow the other, Bergonzi and Grenadier eventually fade out and the rhythm section soon follows, the piece dissolving into nothingness.
Overall The Seven Rays resembles many of Bergonzi’s fine albums over his distinguished career, featuring inspired improvising and intricate compositions that do not sacrifice melody. What sets it apart, however, is the sense of mystery and foreboding found in almost every track; nothing ever feels entirely settled or resolved. This is only appropriate for the music that is supposed to portray ancient philosophical concepts and shows Bergonzi truly accomplished his goal of creating sonic representations of the rays.