Two By Five
between the lines btl 019/EFA 10189-2

Conceivably an unconscious attempt to prove, in hindsight, their worth to their first music teachers, writing for and performing with strings has always been a particular aspiration for jazz musicians. Often, however, the result is merely pretty and decorative.

Ironically enough though, this exceptional piece of notated composition comes from a youngish improviser, who probably has less academic training than most contemporary jazz musicians. Unlike his university-educated confreres, bassist John Lindberg dropped out of school in Grade 10 to get that much more quickly into the jazz life. But in a classic instance of learning on the job, Lindberg’s more than 30 years of playing experience with folks as varied as mainstream drummer Ed Thigpen, ROVA saxophonist Larry Ochs and composer/instrumentalists like Wadada Leo Smith and Anthony Braxton have served him well on this disc.

More directly, as one of the founding members — with guitarist James Emery — of the String Trio of New York, he has spent more than 20 years working out a role for stringed instruments in improvised music. Not that the Lindberg Quintet on this CD is the String Trio writ large. For a start the other four musicians — violinists Rebecca Ansel and Gabriel Bolkosky, violist Wendy Richman and cellist Miriam Bolkosky — are academically trained, so-called classical string players who most of the time are reading their parts. Any improvisations on the two performances come from Lindberg himself.

Written in 1986, when he was 27, to celebrate the birth of his first son, “The Arrival”, in three parts, is obviously an apprenticeship composition, showing the bassist feeling his way into the idiom. Programmatic, “Caught” and “Suspend”, the first two sections, build up tension with contrast between the higher-pitched strings, whose arco strokes and pizzicato plucks reflect modern, dissonant classicism and the unfettered interjections of the bassist. Coming across like a modern day Pops Foster (1892-1969), whose slap style powered Louis Armstrong’s aggregations among others, Lindberg moves up and down his instrument, using its percussive elements as a musical mirror of anxiety. Finally, in part three, “Land”, whining prestissimo strings meld with the bassist’s sonorous plucking. The well-modulated unison line tosses motifs and counter motifs back and forth until it reaches a crescendo in the coda.

Composed expressly in 2001 for this CD, “Basement of Desires” is a musical reflection of a list of things he wanted to alter in his life that Lindberg first wrote down in 1997. The four parts of the suite symbolize the “deep emotions, turmoil, exuberance, heartache and design” that went into both its creation and the yearning for those changes. Sounding more assured than with the first composition, Lindberg takes more of a dominant role here, with the others — at least in the beginning — serving more as a Greek chorus to his expressed concerns, then functioning on their own.

By the time “II” appears the evenly tempered pizzicato bass part is definitely projecting sombre-sounding melancholy. Any sort of gaiety is solely projected by the other strings that weave in, out, and around his lead. “III” comes to some resolution during a complex, unaccompanied Lindberg solo. Overtly jazzy in this context, his powerful yanks and bass body pats soon switch to bow string taps and tiny, taut arco explorations. Imagine Foster morphing into a specialist in atonal, legit, 20th century contrabass literature, and you get some idea of his achievements.

Resolution finds the bassist’s forceful, repetitive 4/4 pulse pushing the rest of the strings into the suggestion of contemporary swing. Soon all are twisting and turning the music every which way in response to his direction, developing and expanding earlier themes and variations. Improv background does win out in the end, since lyrical legato lines characterize the others’ playing, leaving it to Lindberg to manifest the sharp edges of the tune and his personal conflict resolution.

No Third-Stream bagatelle, TWO BY FIVE is instead a masterly exhibition of how to create a memorable composed work with improv overtones. Other recent CDs have shown how well Lindberg bends the jazz idiom to his needs. This session confirms that he can do the same with other modern material.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: The Arrival: 1. Caught 2. Suspend 3. Land 4. Basement of Desires I 5. Basement of Desires II 6. Basement of Desires III 7. Basement of Desires IV

Personnel: Rebecca Ansel, Gabriel Bolkosky (violins); Wendy Richman (viola); Miriam Bolkosky (cello); John Lindberg (bass)