The Lucerne Festival Academy was founded by the great French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez (1925-2016). Andreas Schaerer, a huge fan of Boulez, was a regular attendee at the Academy’s highly regarded Summer School for talented young musicians. When the Academy commissioned him to compose a new work in 2014 he jumped at the opportunity. It took Schaerer five months, locked away in his studio, to come up with the six movements that make up The Big Wig.
Andreas Schaerer is a vocal artist in the truest sense of the word. He does things with his voice that effortlessly push aside parameters others take as the outer limits. It is no surprise that he was awarded the title of International Vocalist of the Year at the 2015 ECHO Jazz Awards (Gregory Porter won it the previous year).
With this live recording of The Big Wig Schaerer sets out to exploit the interplay between his band, Hildegard Lernt Fliegen, and the Orchestra. While the latter is largely asked to play it straight and focus on adding colour, the sextet – featuring saxophones, trombone, flute, bass clarinet, bass, drums, marimba and voice – points the way forward with an assured commonality of purpose.
Over the six tracks we get jazz, prog rock, stage musical, music for film and sundry bursts of sonic noodling. There is no doubt that everyone involved has loads of fun. One is not surprised to learn that, while Schaerer is inspired by Boulez, he also has a weakness for Frank Zappa.
Seven Oaks is a strong opener to the album. One can almost sense the sextet and the orchestra tentatively feeling each other out, Andreas Tschopp’s trombone shining through gloriously and Schaerer giving the first indication of where he can take his voice.
The ballad Preludium, my top pick of the six, has an almost orchestral Pink Floyd-esque vibe to it. A big sassy brass intro gives way to harp strings and Schaerer’s softly sung words. Tschopp’s trombone again features strongly, with a stunning solo. The strings combine with the brass, and later percussion, to gradually raise the intensity until, suddenly, everything falls away and we are left with a quietly unresolved, tension in the strings accompanied by Schaerer’s restrained vocals.
The playful and exhuberant Der Zeusler sees Schaerer pitting his vocal skills against the alto sax to good effect. I love the propulsive, hypnotic and almost tribal beat with sax floating delightfully above it all. The orchestra features strongly. The tempo falls off midway only for percussion to build again and lead into a light-hearted coda, Schaerer’s cod vocals combining with marimba and trombone.
Wig Alert has a South African feel to it thanks mainly to Schaerer’s exteneded vocal improvisations and mouth percussion with timpani accompaniment. Just when I started to think this was the vocal artist’s version of the drum solo, the tune opens up harmoniously with marimba and brass, a beautiful baritone sax solo taking us home.
If Two Colossuses, the longest of the album’s tracks at 13 minutes, is arguably the centrepiece of the album. Opening with human trumpet and tasty orchestration it shows how comfortable sextet and orchestra have gotten in each other’s company. The whole things weirds out at one point with Schaerer losing any remaining inhibitions as to where he might take his extraordinary voice box.
The composer describes the final track, Don Clemenza, as being the soundtrack to an imaginary movie. At times sounding like music from a stage musical it is full of intrigue and high drama.
Final word? The Big Wig is an exciting, eclectic and multi-faceted work. It signals the arrival on the big stage of an innovative new talent in Andreas Schaerer.