Keyboardist/composer Tim Whalen can claim numerous accomplishments. For years, his funky, horn powered fusion act Phat Phunktion was a favorite at local watering holes and in far flung locales like Japan. On his own and in small groups, he was one of the sparkplugs of Madison's modest modern-jazz scene.
When Whalen wore out the city's educational resources, a sojourn at the Manhattan School of Music brought him a taste of a more diverse, more sophisticated creative community. But even after taking a teaching gig at the University of Toledo, he's returned to town to work with his nonet, a supple unit that plays demanding arrangements of Whalen's originals as well as standards.
The originals on Magnus, a new live document of his swinging jazz workshop recorded at the downtown Madison restaurant of the same name, are well worth hearing. No doubt about that. But the most striking cut on the album is "Alabama," John Coltrane's Afro-jazz meditation on the deaths of four African-American girls who were killed in a savage, racially motivated Birmingham church bombing in 1963.
It's a risky choice, of course. Coltrane's own recorded versions of this haunting work in progress are so moving, so utterly humane that they certainly require no improvement. But Whalen and the rest of the nonet understand as much. Their own version does try to re-create some of Coltrane's magnificent lamentation on tenor saxophone. But it also employs rich, subtly orchestrated colors that suggest that the lives of those four beautiful children weren't lived in vain.
That's worth remembering in this historic moment, when one of the country's major political parties has finally had the courage and basic humanity to nominate an African-American for president.
An MP3 of the track is available in the related downloads at right. More songs by the nonet and Phat Phunktion can by listened to on his MySpace page. The Tim Whalen Nonet is playing at Restaurant Magnus on Saturday, October 4, and will be returning to the venue later in the year with shows on November 15 and December 27.
MadTracks highlights and provides MP3s of songs performed by local musicians. All tracks here are provided with permission of the artist. If you are a musician based in the Madison metro area and are interested in sharing your work as a MadTrack, please send a message.