Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen
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Complacent jazz musicians' reliance on timeworn popular standards — and their chord structures — as the basis of improvisation has become as much of a fetish as insistence on a head-solos-head tune construction. Film and show tunes from 1930s, 1940s and 1950s weren't written for improvisers in mind, after all, and familiar melodies don't count for much if you take them apart after the first chorus.

Since jazz should be a constantly-evolving art, other input is needed, and some have turned to rock and "ethnic' music for new inspiration. However the literal vocal nature and simplicity of most of these songs accounts for the low success rate among these experiments. Why then not tap the enormous resources of classical music? This too has proved to be a dead-end for those performers who merely ornament the existing melodies.

But there is a way to make this score-transference work, as New York-based guitarist Keith Yaun has proven on this excellent disc. Bring your own conception to the compositions and adapt them to your strengths, the way accomplished improvisers do with any piece of music.

The visionary compositions of Olivier Messiaen. (1908-1992), recast on this CD, are particularly ripe for reinterpretation. A French composer fascinated with such contemporary preoccupations as spirituality, Indian ragas, bird sounds and rhythmic complexity, Messiaen had a singular vision. He was a melodist, yet one who numbered such future sonic revolutionaries as Boulez, Stockhausen and Xenakis among this students.

Rearranging and transforming Messiaen's pieces initially written for piano and voice, organ or two pianos into improv fodder for two guitars, electric violin and drums, Yuan has formulated a program of layered, pacific visions. Liner notes, which assert that the free improvisations "are not to be mistaken for literal renditions", seem almost ludicrous in their understatement.

Additionally, as with the cooperation implicit in any so-called classical string quartet, the triumph of AMEN is as much the result of teamwork as Yuan's conception. Concentrating on the tiniest detail by using the guitar's affinity for single note expositions, Yuan and Nix seem to float above the compositions when they play, and are so in sync that they sometimes appearing to be picking one large 12-string instrument. A microtonal expert, with two more strings added to his baritone fiddle for auxiliary magnification, Maneri often occupies the spaces between notes in these compositions. But he does it astutely enough, so as not to congest the proceedings. Meanwhile McLellan finesses the most difficult task — creating credible percussion parts for this ethereal undertaking. Light percussion accents and interjecting pulses are just the ticket.

All in all, those with a taste for something out of the ordinary can give thanks that AMEN is an accomplished piece of recorded work.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. La ville qui dormait, toi 2. Amen de la création 3. Organ Meditation No. 7 4. Antienne de la conversation intérieure 5. Organ Meditation No. 5

Personnel: Mat Maneri (electric baritone violin); Keith Yuan and Bern Nix (guitars); Johnny McLellan (percussion)