Richmond musical giant Doug Richards’s take on Antônio Carlos Jobim reinterprets the Brazilian composer’s gently flowing bossa nova music in his own idiosyncratic musical concept. The result is at once traditionally lyrical and bracingly radical, chock full of contrasting contrapuntal melodies rich in harmony, shaded by dissonance, and floating above it all the assured, impeccable vocals of Laura Ann Singh. The musical choices are a mix of the familiar- “Insensatez,” “One Note Samba,” and deeper cuts.
The project, with roots in the hothouse isolation of the COVID shutdown, is dense with musical detail. But despite the density of ideas, there is warmth and space in the arrangements. It is at once true to Jobim’s samba concept and utterly unique.
A lot of credit goes to the dedication of the all-star band, mostly Richmond players along with wider area stalwarts including Charlottesville trumpeter John D’earth and guitarist Adam Larabee, and Tidewater’s John Toomey, who swaps the keyboard role with Daniel Clarke. Whether past students at Virginia Commonwealth University or former collaborators, all wanted to be involved. It was anything but sight-reading, show-up-and-play gig, the highly technical, not always intuitive, twists and turns in the arrangements required individual and section preparation before the tracks were recorded over three sessions at Spacebomb Studio. (Full disclosure: Style Weekly was there, and some of our photos were used in the album packaging.)
There may be something quixotic about releasing an innovative ensemble collaboration in an era of amplified grooves, sampling, and the primacy of individual expression. “Through a Sonic Prism” is too challenging for the swing era big band enthusiasts, and too superficially conventional for the avant-garde, even if there may be more iconoclastic moves in any five minutes of Richards’ work than an album of impassioned, expressionist blowing.
There is a lot to listen to in the multilayered charts, from moments of pastoral reflection to the intense section contrapuntal finale, to “One Note Samba.” On one level it is an album stuffed to the brim with beauty and ideas. On another it is an epochal statement of legacy, not just of the composer, but of a multigenerational wellspring of the RVA scene. In this vision of what a modern big band can be, Richards isn’t just swinging, he’s swinging for the fences.