The Meridian Arts Ensemble are hardly a typical chamber ensemble, as they interpret classical music as well as rock, jazz, theater pieces, and Afro-Cuban music. The group includes trumpeters Richard Kelley and Jon Nelson, horn player Daniel Grabois, trombonist Benjamin Herrington, tuba player Raymond Stewart, and drummer/percussionist Mo Roberts. The first five tracks, written by Frank Zappa, are played in a medley form as a sort of continuous suite, with the group capturing the nuances of Zappa's music as well as his sardonic humor. They had the opportunity to play this music for the composer prior to his death, and he made some corrections and suggestions that helped produce the finished product, which concludes with a peppy take of "Dupree's Paradise." John Halle's "Softshoe," with its rich harmonies and elegant trumpet solo, sounds as if it could have been written by Leonard Bernstein in the 1950s. Phillip Johnston's "Sleeping Beauty" comes from a musical theater piece, with the musicians simulating human voices in various emotional states. There's nothing humorous about their straight-ahead take of Billy Strayhorn's bittersweet ballad "Lush Life" -- it is simply a richly textured, gorgeous performance. The piercing tone of the introduction to Kirk Nurock's "Smart Went Crazy" sounds ominous, but with the sudden chatter of horns and intervals of silence, it seems to capture the anguish and confusion of an asylum resident. The ensemble was inspired by Gil Evans' arrangements of the music of Jimi Hendrix to tackle "Purple Haze." Following an understated introduction, they segue into a subtle, very lyrical introduction before cutting loose and rocking with the best of them. This is an extremely rewarding CD for listeners with wide-ranging tastes and open ears, though it may be somewhat hard to find due to the possible demise of the Channel Crossings label. ~ Ken Dryden
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