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Anne Mette Iversen: Putting Strings to Swing

Ornette Coleman said it best, in the title of one of his compositions: "Beauty Is a Rare Thing." It holds exceptionally true in jazz, though not for want of trying: The market is saturated with sultry vocalists and sweet-hued saxophonists aspiring toward beautiful balladry. But they don't often come together with the right musicians in the right way. And good luck finding a piece with the potential for that cathartic tension and release.

When all the parts come together, as in the "West" waltz from Anne Mette Iversen's Best of the West suite, the weight of beauty is staggering. The composer and bassist fuses a progressive string quartet of fellow Danes with her American jazz quartet in a way that places modern classical and swing in order seamlessly. Pianist Danny Grissett's sparkling touch is just what you didn't know you wanted from the opening solo. And when tenor saxophonist John Ellis reaches for the high notes, there's a little pinch — that slightly sour overtone which triggers a mysterious release of sentiment.

Ultimately, Iversen's intuition for delicately assembling these sounds imbues "West" with its strength of character. Few other arrangers can deter schmaltz when putting strings to swing. And even fewer possess her sense for dulcet harmonies and exquisitely developed form — the patient listener is rewarded with a probing, big-R Romantic, strings-only cadenza at the end. Rarer still is the mind that could put it all together in a way that proclaims itself as the work of an improvising musician. Beauty may be hard to find in jazz, but as Iversen proves, that doesn't mean it's dormant in familiar elements, waiting to be expressed.

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