Doug Richards OrchestraThrough A Sonic Prism Self-Released

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An eminent jazz educator for over 40 years, Richards leads his stellar ensemble in an all-Jobim set brimming with invention, tonal clarity and rhythmic spark

Release Date: September 8th, 2023

Doug Richards, founder of jazz studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, was once hailed by the famed critic Martin Williams as “the most original writer for big band since Gil Evans.” Based in Richmond, Virginia, he flies under the radar nationally but towers in significance among the flourishing Richmond scene. To hear Through a Sonic Prism, his new album of Jobim arrangements featuring vocalist Laura Ann Singh with a top-shelf group of Richmond players, is to be struck by something truly special. Richards’ horn accompaniments, to cite just one aspect, are wildly imaginative, tightly executed, with a rich and unusual blend of brass and reed sonorities — all of it somehow never getting in the way of the song. Richards lets these Jobim classics speak for themselves while making them brand new in the process.

“Jobim fits in an exalted club with the likes of Barber, Copland, Ellington, Strayhorn, Monk, Mingus, Sondheim, Rodgers, Gershwin, Kern, Ravel, Stravinsky and Mahler,” says Richards. “During the pandemic I began exploring Jobim’s songs, and when I got to ‘Ligia’ I knew I wanted to construct a framework that would complement its beautiful design. I approached this album mainly as writing for a group of chamber ensembles, often in contrapuntal fashion. Standard homophonic big band writing is used only rarely. After ‘Ligia’ I was hooked, and 13 others followed in relatively short order.”

Richards’ wisdom has seeped into the groundwater nourishing successive generations of jazz virtuosos. His former students in the 40-plus years he’s devoted to jazz education include Nate Smith, Steve Wilson, James Genus, Clarence Penn, Reggie Pace, members of Butcher Brown and a host of other eminent players and bandleaders.

“The musicians on Through a Sonic Prism,” writes drummer Brian Jones in the liner notes, “represent the best of the vibrant jazz community of Richmond, Virginia. They unselfishly offered their unique skills to this collective project, infusing it with a sense of humanity and a palpable depth of feeling. Intelligent, loyal, and generous, these talented folks are a testament to the creative ecosystem Richards helped build in Richmond….” Trumpeters John D’earth and Bob Miller, bari saxophonist Rick Rieger, soprano whiz John Wittman, clarinetist John Winn, tenorist J.C. Kuhl, trombonists Bryan Hooten and Pete Anderson, pianist Daniel Clarke and guitarist Adam Larrabee are just some of the first-caliber musicians generating heat on Through a Sonic Prism.

“Richards’ music is demanding,” Jones continues. “It requires rehearsal. Sure, you can individually woodshed the charts in the cozy confines of the practice room, but the cold reality is that the band needs to work through the music in real time—together—in order to deftly execute the sly rhythmic nuances, dicey harmonic sequences, and thorny ensemble passages that reliably emerge on the pages of a Doug Richards arrangement.” Planning all this through a pandemic was not a simple thing. But the pandemic, after all, was what enabled Richards to go “down the Jobim rabbit hole” in the first place, as he once told Jones. The happy result is Through a Sonic Prism, completed in three inspired recording sessions, documenting this unique if unheralded voice in the music. Those who know, know. Spin this album and you will too.

In addition to his career at VCU, Richards is founder and musical director of the Great American Music Ensemble, one of the leading professional repertory jazz orchestras in the US. GAME has performed at the Smithsonian Institution Jazz Festival, the Kennedy Center, the International Duke Ellington Society Annual Convention, and the National Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting Concert, and has been featured on NPR and PBS. Richards has also transcribed numerous jazz performances for Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Publications and lectured at the Smithsonian regarding the music of Duke Ellington. For three years, he joined Wynton Marsalis, Max Roach, Ray Brown, Victor Lewis and Martin Williams on the jazz faculty of Gunther Schuller’s Festival at Sandpoint, Idaho. There he met guitarist/composer Anthony Wilson and subsequently produced Wilson’s first two albums, one of which was nominated for a GRAMMY Award.