The journey from adolescence to adulthood can be a harrowing one. For composer and saxophonist Joshua Kwassman, that was true in a very literal sense, as a three-day bike trip, in August 2010, with an idolized childhood friend collapsed into chaos and shattered his youthful illusions.
While that trek itself found Kwassman growing up in a hurry, his musical recounting of the experience marks the debut of a remarkably mature young composer. Songs of the Brother Spirit, which will be released March 12 on Truth Revolution Records, spins the tale of that friendship into a moving, richly-hued collection of music influenced by composers from Ravel and Rachmaninoff to Maria Schneider and Vince Mendoza. The disc climaxes in the three-part suite “The Nowhere Trail,” which follows Kwassman and his friend Justin through that ill-fated bike trip.
“I learned to be an adult through that experience,” Kwassman says of the journey. “The essence of this album is about going through our relationship and how that has translated to my life.”
Kwassman conveys this autobiographical account through lush, modernist arrangements that suggest an ensemble much larger and more varied than its six pieces. The group assembled for the project includes the composer himself on a variety of woodwinds, the ground-breaking guitarist Gilad Hekselman; guitarist Jeff Miles on “The Nowhere Trail Part I”; and the wordless vocals of Arielle Feinman, a classmate at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music.
The album is set at a time when Kwassman still looked up to his friend, when the two bonded over listening to jazz records for hours at a time. “We grew up together through music, listening to Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter and Coltrane,” Kwassman recalls. “I bonded to him deeply through this music. So when I was writing the first piece on the album I was excited about sharing with him, thinking we’d be able to bond over something I had created in the same way we had with Miles.”
Those early listening experiences decided Kwassman on a path to jazz composition. He studied at NYU, where he earned his Masters in the jazz program. He has since received two ASCAP Young Jazz Composer awards and performed with artists like Badal Roy, Ingrid Jensen, Mark Turner, and Geoffrey Keezer. But his main focus is on his own music, which reflects a wide range of influences from the innovative big band work of Maria Schneider and Darcy James Argue to forward-thinking composers like Pat Metheny and Brian Blade. Songs of the Brother Spirit evidences a gift for vivid communication and transporting emotional colors. As Kwassman succinctly says, “My goal is always to tell a story.”