Few individuals can lay claim to having worked with composers as different as Ornette Coleman, Thomas Adés, and George Crumb, but David Arend is no ordinary performer. The two tripartite works featured on Astral Travels, the debut Navona Records release by the double bassist, composer, and Oakland Symphony member, exemplify the ease with which Arend collapses whatever boundaries are presumed to separate classical and jazz, resulting in a hybrid form that updates Gunther Schuller's Third Stream concept for the present day. Anything but a poseur, Arend comes by such an ambition honestly, having played trombone, piano, and bass as a youth in jazz combos before pursuing classical double bass degrees at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and The Juilliard School.
In these recent works, featuring the Moravian Philharmonic Orchestra and conductors Petr Vronský and Jirí Petrdlík, Arend blends formally composed passages and improvised sequences in a way that transcends genre categorization. That said, of the two pieces, Sequoia Sempervirens (2010) and Voyager: Three Sheets to the Wind (2013-14), it's the latter that tips slightly more in jazz's direction thanks to the presence of two soloists, Arend and tenor saxophonist Salim Washington. With solo spots formally braided into their compositional structures, both works assume the character of concertos, the first for double bass alone and the second a double concerto for tenor sax and double bass.
Inspired by a mid-day walk through a California Redwood forest, Arend composed Sequoia Sempervirens with the idea of distilling the stirring impressions of that afternoon into the first movement and following it with evocations of the setting in its nocturnal and early morning guises. The feeling of awe Arend experienced when he witnessed the sunlight filtering through the trees is convincingly rendered in the opening movement when he solos against a luscious orchestral backdrop of strings, woodwinds, and percussion. It's a magical introduction that captures both the majestic sweep and quiet delicacy of the setting, after which the night movement evokes the mystery and stillness of the forest and the robust third the invigorated charge with which it awakens.
Whereas Sequoia Sempervirens is firmly located on terra firma, Voyager: Three Sheets to the Wind sets its sights high above, with Arend having conceived of it as a celebration of the Voyager 1 and 2 missions and the scientists who enable such marvels to happen. Abetted by programmatic titling, the work's various parts allow the listener to vicariously experience an astral journey whose views dazzle and mesmerize by turn. With a drummer adding jazzy propulsion to the score and Arend and Washington contributing jazz-tinged solos of their own, the music takes on a breezy, lighter-than-air feeling as it undertakes its galaxy tour. Stops at Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune form part of the itinerary in oft-swinging sequences that range in character and mood from spellbound and agitated to wondrous and ethereal. In classic Third Stream fashion, both soloists strut their stuff when the music's not dedicated to through-composed writing, with the slower closing part “Interstellar Space” affording ample room for the two to maneuver. It's to Arend's credit that one easily could imagine both Sequoia Sempervirens and Voyager: Three Sheets to the Wind being presented as part of a jazz concert or classical programme.