Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mark Isham: Composer, Musician, Innovator

Mark Isham (trumpet)
Blue Sun

Many of you may not know Mark Isham but you have heard his music. Nowadays he is known for his film and TV music than his jazz recordings. Mark has done music for the films Crash (2005 version), Quiz Show, the superb jazz soundtrack Afterglow and the television series Chicago Hope to name a few. But for me it is his work as a jazz musician that still stands out.

Mark Isham began his career at the ethereal (some say originator of New Age music) label Windham Hill Records. His ability to create innovative and provocative beauty through electronics and his trumpet set him apart from many other musicians during the eighties. While some of his Windham Hill recordings seem slightly lightweight now, you could see the direction he would later take in recording the divergent Castalia for Virgin Records, which included Mick Karn and David Torn among others. He would also record the quiet yet very textured We Begin (ECM Records) in collaboration with pianist Art Lande in addition to session and touring work with David Sylvian.

While both albums and some of the Windham Hill releases are definitely quality recordings worth the adventure to buy, I would like to fast forward to his last original jazz recording for Columbia Records entitled Blue Sun. Blue Sun was a return to his melodic Miles Davis inspired work that had been hinted at for years. It was as a reminder to everyone that Mark Isham was not just the composer of film and TV scores but he is a passionate and delicate creator of soundscapes that is rarely seen in jazz musicians today.

Mark Isham's ability to shift between both soundtrack music and jazz recordings is rare (fellow trumpeter Terence Blanchard is the only other musician who has managed to do it well). It is his devotion to both act as the foundation on which he builds a layer of lush tones and dark melodies. This is something everyone should take the time to experience.

I was lucky enough to see and speak with Mark Isham once on tour for the Blue Sun album and he is extremely down to earth and enjoys talking about his recordings but prefers to talk even more about his fellow musicians and those with whom he has collaborated. This is the true sign of a musician who takes the art form more seriously than themselves. Mark Isham has only made one other jazz album since Blue Sun, the tribute to his ideal Miles Davis, The Silent Way Project (Columbia Records). If you can find any of these albums there is a great compilation that covers a decent amount of material called Pure (Legacy Recordings) which will satisfy you.

Mark just released Bittersweet (EarleTones) an album with Australian pop/jazz vocalist, Kate Ceberano. This is a great return to form for Mark and I've highly enjoyed it recently. Here's to hoping that this is the start of Mark Isham spinning new beautiful and haunting melodies in the jazz forum again.

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