In Latin, ars nova translates to new art – and that’s precisely what the band of the same name was seeking to conjure on two albums originally released in 1968 and 1969. Now, Cherry Red Group’s Esoteric Recordings imprint has reissued both of Ars Nova’s LPs – Ars Nova and Sunshine and Shadows – on one 2-CD set entitled Fields of People: The Atlantic and Elektra Recordings 1968-1969.
The group was the brainchild of recent Mannes College musical conservatory graduates Wyatt Day (guitar/keyboards/vocals) and Jon Pierson (trombone/vocals). They invited their classmate Maury Baker (drums) to form a group influenced by the psychedelic sound then in the air. Jonathan Raskin (bass/backing vocals/guitar) was in, then out, then in again; Bill Folwell enlisted on trumpet, and Giovanni Papalia joined on lead guitar. The band came to the attention of manager Arthur Gorson who got them signed to Elektra Records. Gorson’s pull – he also represented Judy Collins, Phil Ochs, and Tom Rush – landed the largely untested Ars Nova at Sunset Sound Studios with Paul Rothchild (The Doors, Love) as producer. At the label’s suggestion, Wyatt Day was paired with lyricist Gregory Copeland to pen many of the songs on the band’s self-titled LP.
Ars Nova proved a sprawling debut. Haunting melodies were the band’s métier, married to frequently impressionistic lyrics and expansive, horn-driven arrangements that, a few years later, would have made the cut as “progressive.” The sound of the LP was stylistically all over the place from folk-styled balladry to music hall whimsy. The soft, pretty “Pavan for My Lady” (the album’s lead single) and “March of the Mad Duke’s Circus” highlighted the group harmonies to recall a more baroque Association; “Fields of People” (later memorably covered by The Move), “I Wrapped Her in Ribbons (After Ibiza),” and “Song to the City” brought out a folk-rock influence. Ars Nova even ambitiously tackled “Enacte: Le Messe de Notre Dame,” a composition from 14th century French composer Guillaume de Machaut.
Maury Baker peppered the album with instrumental pieces and interludes including an elaborate organ epilogue (“Enacte: Dancer”) after “And How Am I to Know” and the brass-powered instrumental composition “Zarathustra” which naturally quoted the famous Strauss composition. Rothschild’s bold production made the album a high-class affair, highlighting the classical influences and aspirations. While it attracted fans including The Move’s Roy Wood, Ars Nova failed to make a commercial splash and the band soon fractured. Wyatt Day and Jon Pierson pressed on, assembling a new group with Sam Brown (guitar), Joe Hunt (drums/percussion), Art Koening (bass), and Jimmy Owens (trumpet), but Elektra dropped them from the roster.
Arthur Gorson still believed in Ars Nova. He got the new line-up signed to Elektra’s soon-to-be sister imprint Atlantic Records for a sophomore LP. This time the band stayed in their hometown of New York, recording at Brooks Arthur’s Century Sound with Arthur engineering. Warren Bernhardt was added on keyboards to beef up the sound of the six-man ensemble. Gorson and the band would be co-credited as producers. The notes pointed out that the album was recorded live in the studio. With Pierson still on lead vocals, Sunshine and Shadows was able to maintain a degree of consistency with its predecessor.
The opening track and single, the rhythmic “Sunshine and Shadows,” betrayed more of a rock influence while still incorporating a mournful trumpet part. The edgier sound continued on the swirling “I Was Once” while much of the album again drew upon a diverse palette. The delicate ballad “She Promised Everything” was in the vein of “Pavan for My Lady” minus the lush harmonies. The scorching “Well, Well, Well” found Ars Nova dabbling in electric blues-rock with baroque trumpet flourishes contrasting the searing guitar licks. The pulsating instrumental “You Had Better Listen” wouldn’t be out of place on a collection with early Blood Sweat & Tears or Chicago. A Brazilian breeze wafts through the jazz-inflected “Walk on the Sand” and the jazz flavor was carried even further on the hep “Rubbish.”
Unfortunately, Sunshine and Shadows marked the end of the road for Ars Nova. Atlantic delayed the album’s release for almost a year after it was recorded, and despite the positive reviews, the band called it quits. Happily, they left behind a compact but worthwhile discography revealing a band with a great deal of promise, some of it fulfilled.
Esoteric has presented the two original albums, one per disc, in a six-panel digipak. The 20-page booklet has a brief but informative essay by Mark Powell as well as lyrics for the first album, and personnel/credits for both. Paschal Byrne has remastered from the original Elektra and Atlantic master tapes. Fields of People: The Atlantic and Elektra Recordings 1968-1969 returns both of these albums to CD for the first time in 15 years. It is available now from Cherry Red and Esoteric at the links below.
CD 1: Ars Nova (Elektra LP EKS 74020, 1968)
- Pavan for My Lady (Fall, Winter, Summer, and Spring)
- General Clover Ends a War/Enacte: Le Messe Notre Dame
- And How Am I to Know/Enacte: Dancer
- Album in Your Mind
- Fields of People
- Automatic Love
- I Wrapped Her in Ribbons (After Ibiza)
- Song to the City
- March of the Mad Duke’s Circus
CD 2: Sunshine and Shadows (Atlantic LP SD 8221, 1969)
- Sunshine and Shadows
- I Was Once
- Temporary Serenade
- She Promises Everything
- Well, Well, Well
- You Had Better Listen
- Round Once Again
- Walk on the Sand
- Please Don’t Go Now