Embracing the Void
Hopscotch 9

The Labyrinth
Hopscotch 12

Different as free jazz and New music, on show here are two distinct manifestations of the composing and arranging skills for larger groups by tenor saxophonist Assif Tsahar. Both are engrossing, remarkably mature, compositional works for someone best known for his impassioned blowing with the likes of bassist William Parker and drummer Hamid Drake.

EMBRACING THE VOID has a slight edge however. That’s because all 14 members of the Zoanthropic Orchestra appear better able to personalize the emotional cauldron of Tsahar avant jazz pieces than the 19 musicians of the New York Underground Orchestra can contour THE LABYTINTH into a more original form.

VOID’s clearest antecedent seems to be The Jazz Composer’s Orchestra (JCO)’s 1968 COMMUNICATIONS LP. Designed by Mike Mantler to showcase New Thing soloists such as cornetist Don Cherry, tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and pianist Cecil Taylor, it proved that heartfelt experimental music wasn’t confined to small groups.

Tsahar, who was born in Israel the year after that JCO session was taped, and arrived in New York in 1990, has the same idea, but his 10-part, personalized suite is much more democratic. Nearly every one of the musicians gets a chance to solo here. More to the point, all of the music written by Tsahar appears to be intricately arranged so that each part meshes with the next.

Framed by squealing, post-Ayler solos by the tenor man in the first and — in altissimo -or even sopranino pitch — the final number, the almost 56-minute composition balances elements of jazz and other traditions with expressive atonality. Sometimes, as on “Part 3”, the music will contain Balkan and Klezmer components, mixed with some high frequency piano chording from pianist Craig Taborn, whinnying trumpet from Matt Lavelle and cellar deep blasts from Reut Regev’s trombone.

With the other ‘bone chairs filled by Curtis Hasselbring and Steve Swell, the Zoanthropic has a section reminiscent of Duke Ellington’s famed group, with any of the three able to express the restrained elegance of Lawrence Brown as well as more so-called primitive tones. Swell, a fixture in advanced Manhattan bands, is especially able to slide through a variety of plunger-affixed positions, creating a 1920s “Jungle” sound like a Internet age Tricky Sam Nanton.

Later on, a section with Mingus-like Holiness church boogie rhythm finds Swell and another Israeli-born downtowner, alto saxophonist Ori Kaplan, trading licks after the saxman has finished a screeching, triple tonguing solo, and as the band builds to a crescendo behind him. The piece also gives bassist Tom Abbs, Jump Arts mainman, enough breadth to individually sound out stinging arco notes.

When he wants to, Taborn, who has earned his spurs with reedist Roscoe Mitchell and altoist Tim Berne, can speed skate over the keys like a young Cecil Taylor. Other times he can be overtly bluesy, as on “Part 9” when he sets up tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart’s floating mid-period John Coltranish solo. Stewart, part of the Fieldwork trio and sideman of choice for veteran pianist Andrew Hill, enlivens his outing with mid-range honks and extended techniques, centred on hissing air through his horn.

Elsewhere on the reed front, baritone saxophonist Alex Harding, a sometime Arkestra member gets to exhibit his dual identities on “Part 4”. At one point his tone is as mellow and well-modulated as Gerry Mulligan in his West Coast days, a few bars later he’s digging up the building’s foundations with his reed, spewing out multiphonics as he smears his notes, nearly duking it out with the brass section.

As the band meanders from Basie to Boulez and back again, often you’ll note meticulously arranged unison passages playing off against a moving bass line, or hear the entire band creeping along behind the soloist. Gold Sparkle Band drummer Andrew Barker creates Sunny Murray-like polyrhythms one minute and produces varsity football half-time marching tempos — complete with rim shots — a few tracks later. POMO eclecticism is on tap as well on “Part 5”, which features Oscar Noriega, who has worked with pianist Satoko Fujii producing tongue-slapping Eric Dolphy emulations from his bass clarinet. Meanwhile, Anthony Braxton-associate cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum cuts across the band’s massed stop time tutti with a screeching Cat Anderson-like tone.

Distressingly, a year later when Tsahar relocated from Manhattan to Brooklyn to conduct the New York Underground Orchestra through his sprawling, nearly 72½-minute “The Labyrinth”, it seems that some of these players weren’t available. In addition, three violinists, two violists, two cellists and three bassists joined the band, with the woodwinds confined to flutes and clarinets. The result seems more self-consciously philharmonic than, say jazz-classical. Plus many of the additional tones are muffled in the recording or the mix.

Not that there isn’t impressive work here as well. Early on, trombonist Regev who on the earlier CD seems to be an adherent of the gritty Al Grey school creates some elegant muted passages in front of pulsating strings and horns. This symphonic backing don’t prevent Noriega’s bass clarinet to indulge in enough multiphonics to twist the strings echoing aviary tones. Later on, Charles Waters, another Gold Sparkle Band member, uses the string section sawing in the background to cushion a clean, clear clarinet solo that comes out half-Benny Goodman and half-Ornette Coleman (if the later ever played the licorice stick). And trumpeter Nate Wooley, although surrounded by a larger string section than in some of Stan Kenton’s more bloated orchestras, manages to at least push the orchestra into some conventional swinging passages.

Deficiency doesn’t rest with the soloists. It’s the orchestral passages, that with this string-heavy configuration, seems to meander from Debussy-like preciousness to New music bleakness to near-static minimalism. Tsahar’s conduction and writing on “The 5th Path” tries to work out of this conundrum. Muted — or is it muffled? — trumpet passages from Lavelle initially displayed on top of unvarying pizzicato pluck from the strings, are soon joined by Wooley for a dramatic fanfare which encompasses rooster crows and plunger work. As the strings move from diminuendo to crescendo and back, both brassmen create a stop time pulse as Tatsuya Nakatani showcases vibes, wood block and other unconventional percussion sounds.

Another time sweet violin and cello lines follow a brass choir intro that gives way to pealing percussion and the odd bass clarinet accent. Yet the andante motion seems merely movement for its own sake. On the last track are Jonah Sacks’ mournful cello presages, Impressionistic strings, twittering flutes and a clarinet and bass clarinet that seem to be trading fours oblivious of what’s unrolling around them. Finally, an exaggerated, extended pianissimo chord is grasped by the reeds and horns until it fades away.

While re-creators — read copyists — like Wynton Marsalis, receive awards for using orchestral resources to calcify the tradition, innovators like Tsahar are trying to do something more with larger ensembles. Obviously he doesn’t succeed every time. Plus there is some inexcusable sloppiness on the first disc’s booklet, where performers’ names are spelled incorrectly. They’re correct below.

However, without trying to be hyperbolic, from the evidence here it would seem that one Tsahar almost-failure could be worth a few Marsalis so-called successes. Despite it’s weaknesses, THE LABYRINTH offers some thought-provoking music and EMBRACING THE VOID is a definite triumph. What more could a musically questing composer want?

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Void: 1. Embracing the Void Part 1 2. Embracing the Void Part 2 3. Embracing the Void Part 3. 4. Embracing the Void Part 4 5. Embracing the Void Part 5 6. Embracing the Void Part 6 7. Embracing the Void Part 7 8. Embracing the Void Part 8 9. Embracing the Void Part 9 10. Embracing the Void Part 10

Personnel: Void: Taylor Ho Bynum, Matt Lavelle, Antoine Brye (trumpets); Curtis Hasselbring, Steve Swell and Reut Regev (trombones); Ori Kaplan (alto saxophone); Aaron Stewart, Assif Tsahar (tenor saxophones); Alex Harding (baritone saxophone); Oscar Noriega (bass clarinet and alto saxophone); Craig Taborn (piano); Tom Abbs (bass); Andrew Barker (drums)

Track Listing: Labyrinth: 1. The lst Path 2. The 2nd Path 3. The 3rd Path 4. The 4th Path 5. The 5th Path 6. The 6th Path 7. The 7th Path 8. The 8th Path 9. The 9th Path 10. The 10th Path

Personnel: Labyrinth: Matt Lavelle, Nate Wooley, Marianne Giosa (trumpets); Reut Regev (trombone); Charles Waters (clarinet); Oscar Noriega (bass clarinet); Sabine Arnaud, Muriel Vergnaud (flutes); Melinda Rice, Jean Cook, Katie Pawluk (violins); Stephanie Griffin, Jessica Pavone (violas); Okkyung Lee, Jonah Sacks (cellos); Terrence Murren, Byrne Klay, Todd Nicholson (basses); Tatsuya Nakatani (percussion); Assif Tsahar (conduction)