Ever wonder how you turn Italian epic poetry from the 14th-century into jazz? Pianist Joe Alterman's liner notes for Sherman Irby's Inferno can shed a little light.
While jazz certainly embodies freedom, Irby’s Inferno represents another timely message. In today’s world of division, hype, and distractions, where mankind can be manipulated by algorithms and become addicted to a phone’s beep, we’re constantly reminded that our basic instincts are animalistic. However, there is an intelligence and cleverness to Irby’s rich, multi- layered, powerfully compelling Inferno that reminds of us of that which makes us human. Of course, all kinds of music have the ability to help us transcend. But it’s hard to think of another genre besides jazz that can capture so many different— and often conflicting—feelings all at the same time. Irby’s Inferno is filled with a wide range of feelings, intelligent and dense harmonies, and thoughtful, irresistible rhythms. This isn’t simply a jazz version of an old poem; this is an important musical piece that matters today. The power of Irby’s timely and compelling Inferno lies in its uniqueness and intelligence. And, of course, its swing. This is “Irby’s main goal above all else,” says fellow JLCO bandmate Chris Crenshaw, whose musical interpretation of James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones premiered on the same concert as Irby’s Inferno in 2012.
While Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, and others have composed suites and religious pieces, it really is hard to find a precedent for a piece like this. After all, here we have a six- movement suite featuring a big band interpreting an epic poem.
That said, with or without Dante’s story as context, Irby’s Inferno would stand on its own.
Irby’s intelligence and unique way of honoring and expanding on tradition is exemplified in Movement One, “House Of Unbelievers.” This movement depicts the first circle of hell whose inhabitants are the souls who did not believe in God (but have not sinned). This category includes poets, scientists, philosophers, unbaptized infants, and kings of non- Christian lands.
In depicting this circle, Irby envisioned a cocktail party. “The guests,” he says, “are greeted with brass fanfares and people entertained by a big band. The solos reflect those guests at the party.”
Listen to the rich, lush harmonies, the relaxed swing, the playful flutes and the crisp horns. It may feel familiar, but it isn’t, and that’s part of the magic that makes Irby’s journey into the unknown so exciting.