Saxophonist/composer Brian McCarthy explores the origins of the solar system on the breathtaking second album by his acclaimed Nonet. AFTER|LIFE, due out May 26, 2023 via Truth Revolution Recording Collective, reconvenes the band from McCarthy’s lauded The Better Angels of Our Nature for a cosmically ambitious follow-up
“McCarthy imbues his original compositions with a scholar’s perspicacity and a melodist’s ear.” – Brian Zimmerman, DownBeat
“We are made of star stuff,” the great astronomer Carl Sagan famously wrote, capturing in one marvelous, succinct phrase the universe as the ultimate recycling project. Everything that exists, he explained, had its origins in the matter that gave birth to existence in the Big Bang: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars.”
Saxophonist, bandleader and composer Brian McCarthy found that idea a source of boundless inspiration as he conceived the music for AFTER|LIFE, the second album by his acclaimed Nonet. Due out May 26, 2023 via Truth Revolution Recording Collective, AFTER|LIFE is the follow-up to McCarthy’s critically lauded The Better Angels of Our Nature, which explored the Civil War era and its music through stunning original compositions and brilliant reimaginings of vintage folk songs.
With AFTER|LIFE, the scope and ambition of McCarthy’s vision has expanded on a cosmic scale. While he originally pondered a series of pieces reflecting on different cultures’ concepts of life after death, he found himself compelled more by science than spirituality. The cyclical nature of the universe, the possibility that it will eventually collapse and then explode into a reborn reality – and the distinct possibility that this has already happened, perhaps many times – was enthralling enough to fuel an hour’s worth of adventurous, stargazing music that traces the life cycle of our solar system.
“The life that we’re living is basically a form of whatever came before us,” McCarthy says. “In that sense, we exist in the after life. I’m fascinated by the fact that all the molecules that make up our bodies, our atmosphere, the planet that we live on and all the planetary bodies around us were once a part of the same giant structure. We are all inevitably connected, even at a molecular level, no matter how different we might think we are.”
As much as these grand ideas serve to fuel McCarthy’s creativity, he’s equally inspired by the stellar band he’s assembled. All but one member of the Nonet return from Better Angels, many of them collaborators since his days from his days at William Paterson University or in the band of legendary trumpeter Clark Terry. The group includes trumpeter and former teacher Bill Mobley, saxophonists Daniel Ian Smith, Andrew Gutauskas and Stantawn Kendrick, trombonist Cameron McManus, bassist Matt Aronoff, pianist Justin Kauflin and drummer Jared Schonig along with McCarthy on alto and soprano saxes.
“Knowing these players the way that I do, it’s second nature at this point to tailor the music for their individual personalities,” he explains. “I know what situations they’ll thrive in and I also know the situations that might make them a little uncomfortable but that will push them a bit. And I definitely use both of those.” The final member of the ensemble is producer Linda Little, McCarthy’s partner in life as well as music, who brought a keen ear and a much-needed perspective to the sessions. “I completely trust Linda’s ideas and criticisms,” McCarthy says. “We may not always agree, but in the end the music ends up being better than either of us could have made by ourselves.”
AFTER|LIFE begins with “Nebula,” a brief introductory piece that captures the monumental stillness of the “vast, dense cloud of dust and gas that was motionless for hundreds of millions of years” and that eventually gave birth to the solar system. It segues into “The Beginning,” where a lively, ricocheting energy imagines the progression from chaos to order. The vibrant, chamber-like horns that open “Flux” provide a wondrous sense of the transfer and flow of energy, while a gentle melody orbits Matt Aronoff’s robust bass line to depict “Kepler’s Law” regarding planetary motion.
The centerpiece of AFTER|LIFE is the titular three-piece suite, the most ambitious composition in McCarthy’s repertoire to date. The piece is the evolution of the cosmos in miniature, beginning with a relatively simple, swinging melody that becomes increasingly complex over the course of the 18-minute suite, culminating in the frenetic pace of modern life. “Lucy” provides a searching postscript; the piece is named for NASA’s 2021 mission to study the formation of the solar system, which borrowed its name from our fossilized ancestor. The piece is built on the three-note motif that NASA sent out in a call to artists to create music inspired by the mission.
AFTER|LIFE, which was awarded grants from the Vermont Community Foundation and the Vermont Arts Council, is also a direct result of its predecessor’s success, as the plaudits that greeted the release of Better Angels helped steer McCarthy’s trajectory in the direction of more conceptual works. But where the first album took elements from wartime songs and melodies, with AFTER|LIFE McCarthy had to start from scratch, somehow translating the very fabric of the universe into concrete musical ideas. He found parallels in the speculative nature of theoretical science itself, the need for scientists to make grand leaps in logic akin to those of science fiction authors in order to conceive new breakthroughs in understanding.
“Astronomers and physicists need to have an artistic view to bridge the gap between the observable universe and what lies beyond,” McCarthy says. “They need to have a firm grasp on both reality and artistic fantasy to make that come to life. It’s unconventional thinking mixed with conventional physics that brings those ideas into reality.”
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© Ashton J. Herrewyn