Umbrella 027

Ever see one of those beer commercials celebrating the idea of a bunch of guys and gals getting together every so often to have fun and do something interesting? Well, the members of North Carolina’s Micro-East Collective (MEC) follows something like that idea except what they do — probably with and without the beer — isn’t playing billiards, bowling or Parcheesi. Instead they perform sophisticated improvised music.

Just because the 20-member-plus MEC doesn’t include any so-called stars, and exists in locations far from the fashionable music centres doesn’t make this mostly-acoustic music any less unique or diminish its appeal. As a matter of fact, the idea of getting as many musicians involved composing, organizing, conducting and structuring the tunes has been advanced by such different organizations as Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and London’s Scratch Orchestra. Since many of the players here are either pro or at very least exceptional semi-pro, the improvisations come a lot closer to the former than the later.

With most of the compositions here hovering around the less than three-minute mark, it’s hard to single out anyone for particular praise … or blame for that matter. But that isn’t the point. Putting aside individual virtuosity for a greater and more harmonious result seems to be the MEC’s raison d’être. One would hope that the concept isn’t too Socialist for the present day United States.

Thus such “at home” implements as a banjo, penny whistle and accordion are mixed with purported orchestral instruments like a cello, oboe, tuba and bassoon, while other MEC members show up with the expected trumpets, trombones, guitars, saxophones, percussion and even an analog synthesizer. Impressive sound pictures exist throughout, whether the results clock in at 50 seconds or, in one case, at almost 10 minutes. There are many clumps of attractive interactive playing here, whether the MEC is at full strength or dived into trios or quartets.

Probably the most instructive example of the collective talents occurs on the final more than 13-minute group improvisation. Made up of many pitches, rhythms and tempi with an emphasis on the elevated parts of the scale, the track also features German alto saxophonist Frank Gratkowski as a guest. Acting nothing like a star soloist with a backup group, he subsumes his virtuosity within the band’s sound, and the result is as satisfying as any other piece here.

If there are any faults on the disc, it would be that there’s a transposition of information for a couple of the small group tracks, with different instruments than noted appearing. Other than that, however, MEC offers a fine showcase for impressive music appearing from the U.S. heartland. This CD can easily be investigated by anyone drawn to group improvisation.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Eppy 2. ...but thou didst not leave 3. Fabric 4. Did you drop something? 5. Oxygen Debt 6. Sunken 7. He was despised 8. Gather & Cast 9. Surely he hath borne our grief 10. Interlope 11. Untoward 12. Adrenaline 13. Mumble-the-peg 14. Plain of Jars 15. Magnetic Hive Transmissions

Personnel: Eric Furfine (flugelhorn); Corey Sims (trumpet, alto horn, accordion); William McConaghy (trombone, trumpet, cornet, slide trumpet)#; Patty Painter-Wakefield (French horn)#; David Morris (tuba)#; Amy Wilkinson (clarinet); David Jordan (clarinet, slide whistle, suona); Martha Bausch (flute, pennywhistle); Crowmeat Bob (alto saxophone, bass clarinet, trombone)#; Frank Gratkowski (alto saxophone)+; Jeff Brown (tenor, alto, soprano saxophones); Greg Decker (baritone and tenor saxophone); Carrie Shull (oboe)@; D’Arcy Grae (bassoon)+; Kim Ashley (violin); Walker Martin$, Jason Bivins+, Rich Robeson (guitars); Chuck Johnson (guitar, banjo)@; Chris Eubank (cello)@; Mac McCaughan (analog synthesizer)*; Aaron Oliva (bass, electric bass); Christopher Thurston (double bass)+; Mark Simonsen (vibraphone, xylophone, percussion)*; Ian Davis*, Nathan Logan+ (percussion); Chris Stamey (lights!)