August 27, 2001
One of the real contributions of 21st century composers may be to create genuine fusion sounds that draw upon jazz, free improv, pop and contemporary classical music. With this impressive release, it seems that bass guitarist/composer Steuart Liebig is well on the way to realizing this goal.
These four concertos for selected soloists plus a seven piece ensemble reference pop, jazz, New and so-called serious music in the ensembles. But the soloists' contributions wouldn't exist except for the extended tradition of jazz and improvised sounds. Basically, the Culver City, Calif.-based Liebig joins other musical thinkers in North America, Europe and Asia in brewing up the perfect admixture of sounds.
Like many of his contemporaries, he himself has moved from idiom to idiom in past. But, unlike many, he's managed to meld these different influences into his writing. Veteran of time with soul-jazz pianist Les McCann, singer/songwriter Michel Penn and BLOC, his own rock band, the bass guitarist also studied classical double bass at the university level and collaborated with such other far-sighted composer/instrumentalists as Vinny Golia and Julius Hemphill.
On its own, though, POMEGRANATE, with its four selections titled with lines from the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, manages to move forward in such a away that it negates many of the concerns that have disquieted so-called Third Stream composers since the 1950s. Briefly, by carefully marshalling each cited style in the music, but by writing only enough to still allow the soloist and section players their freedom, he's created overlong pieces — the shortest is a touch under 15 minutes — that never wear out their welcome.
Each featured player is also given enough space to do what he does best. Most remarkable is guitarist Nels Cline, who on his own discs is prone to excessive guitar hero posturing. His turn here, though, appears to be the most successful melding of rock-influenced electric guitar and ensemble since Larry Coryell recorded Michael Mantler's "Communications #9" with The Jazz Composer's Orchestra in 1968. After a display of rock music flare launching and blues licks, Cline settles down into a sympathetic modern jazz groove, helped not a little by repetitive leitmotivs from the band. Feedback laden guitar is matched with John Fumo speedy trumpet lines at one point, while quasi heavy metal lead lines have to pause for a pastoral violin interlude, which is cushioned by the massed woodwinds. Throughout, frontmen and backing musicians are kept on the straight and narrow by Liebig's bass guitar and Alex Cline's drums, which modulate from hard rock beats to jazz timekeeping and back again.
Probably because it's an instrument the composer feels most comfortable writing for, bassist Mark Dresser's showcase is the most spectacular, and at nearly 22 minutes, the longest. Drawing on Dresser's jazz chops and classical smarts, Liebig has him concentrating on arco and the bass clef. Playing the equivalent of musical tennis doubles, the bassist finds himself shadowed by one or another instrument each time he heads off on a solo flight. At one point it may be Scot Ray's resonant trombone, at others Ellen Burr's gritty flute or delicate piccolo, with Jeff Gauthier half-romantic, half raunchy 4-or 5-string electric violin and an almost Classical sounding trumpet also getting into the act. Sounding as many as three notes at once, Dresser works his way through the piece, using the bow, his fingers and the sides of his bass to put the improv backbone into the somewhat precious accompaniment with which he has to blend.
Burr's breathy flute takes centrestage again when she goes head to head with Tom Varner, probably the most accomplished jazz French hornist, on his feature. With a plushy tone, Varner gives a profoundly modern cast to his solos, even when faced with a neo rondo from the strings and horns. More flexible then even a valve trombone, the hornist leaps from counterpoint with Burr to several out-and-out jazzy interludes, aided and abetted by the rhythm section's straightahead rhythmic beat that wouldn't be out of place in a late 1950s Teddy Charles or Gil Evans session.
Any lingering neo-classicism is blown away by Golia's sopranino saxophone on another composition. When the mellow repeated theme threatens to get out of hand, the reedman forges his solo with such intensity that soon the other woodwinds are offering atonal interludes that owe a lot more to ASCENSION than the ART OF THE FUGUE. Double and triple-tonguing, Golia stops time as he probes the heavens, gradually arching like a rainbow over first the woodwinds and then the standard bass and drums accompaniment.
Should interesting writing, virtuoso soloing, tight ensembles and one glimpse at improvised music's future interest you, then definitely look out for this CD.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: 1. Widening circles reach across the world 2. The motionless blue of fallen skies 3. Flare up like the flame and create dark shadows 4. The darkness of each endless fall
Personnel: John Fumo (trumpet and flugelhorn); Scot Ray (trombone); Ellen Burr (flute, alto flute, piccolo); Eric Barber (clarinet); Jeff Gauthier (4 and 5 string electric violins); Steuart Liebig (C, B flat and E flat bass guitars); Alex Cline (drums and percussion); plus Tom Varner (French horn) [track 1]; Mark Dresser (bass and giffus) [track 2]; Vinny Golia (sopraninio saxophone) [track 3] and Nels Cline (guitar) [track 4]