JAMES EMERY

Transformations
between the lines btl 027

James Emery has finally fully realized his potential.

That may seem like a harsh assessment of someone who has been part of creative music for almost three decades, collaborating with major players and one-third of the String Trio of New York (STNY) for more than 25 years.

But in the past, most projects the New York-based guitarist has concentrated on have either been co-op (such as the STNY), or had him featured in a supporting role. Even on FOURTH WORLD, his previous between the lines CD, he seemed to be more of a sideman to saxophonist Joe Lovano than the leader of the date.

Fittingly, TRANSFORMATIONS puts all this to the side. Writing and orchestrating a five-movement, three-interlude composition, he mixes the improvisational skills of British reedman Tony Cole, Austrian flugelhornist Franz Koglmann and himself with notated music for the 22-piece, mostly woodwinds and strings, Klangforum Wien. The result references the Third Stream experiments of the 1960s, but with few of the awkward transitions between so-called classical and so-called jazz music that characterized such efforts in the past. Appended are five quartet pieces that add Austrian-American bassist Peter Herbert for a series of combo chamber pieces that slide closer to jazz.

“Transformations”, subtitled “Music for 3 Improvisers and Orchestra”, is song-like in conception. Buoyant and spirited, it relies much of the time on metamorphosis of theme and short variations. Though the writing has a tendency to be flowery, there’s not the same sort of fissure between the so-called classical orchestra and the improvisers that Third Stream pioneers like Gunther Schuller and Jimmy Giuffre had to face 40 years ago. In 21st century Vienna, many supposedly legit players have jazz chops as well.

In the main, though, it’s up to the soloists to provide the real improvisations. Emery himself sounds particularly animated. Using a closely miced, nylon-string acoustic guitar, he offers up speedy flat-picking and vehement flailing in his solo turns, putting some testosterone into the sometimes frilly, almost 19th century crescendos and climaxes he’s written for the strings and horns.

More mellow, Koglmann’s muted interjections occasionally skirt the saccharine, kept from turning too sugary by the notated pizzicato tugs and clicks that the massed celli, violas and violins add. Coe, whose playing situations encompass Humphrey Lyttelton’s Swing bands, studio work with Henry Mancini and combo dates with Brit experimenter Tony Oxley, treats the orchestra with the respect it deserves. That is he uses it as background for his liquid clarinet musings if need be, or explodes from within it on tenor sax, just like earlier soloists would have in lumbering Stan-Kenton-with-strings situations.

Emery isn’t Kenton or any of the later’s favored arrangers thank goodness, but the invertible counterpoint he’s put in sections like “Movement II - The Flow Below”, seems to need a strong voice to put everything on an even keel. Coe does that. Expanding on his unique outside/Cool style, the saxman lets the sections indulge in cross themes and variations as he glides in front of them.

Furthermore, the brief Interludes 1 through 3 are most memorable for what the soloists do there. One features Emery flashing a blues tonality on his Spanish guitar; another has him providing the flat-picked bass underpinnings and behind-the-bridge prickly touches that frame Coe’s sluicing coloratura clarinet tone; the third finds Koglmann extending a deep, mellifluent theme that advances and fades as it works its way through his Harmon mute.

Although Kenton’s brassy Neophonic Third Stream experiments are conceivably referenced by default here, the irrepressible pulse from Björn Wilker’s vibraphone and Lukas Schiske’s marimba on many tracks sometimes recalls the percussive mallet soloists of Woody Herman’s Herds, which were anything but Third Stream.

“Movement V - The Solar Body” brings the more than 39-minute extravaganza to a head, as the strings, piano and percussion combine into a swinging groove. Accelerated, flat-picked, double-stopped chords scratch and click on top of the soaring and jumping orchestral sound, as the double-tongued flugelhorn notes and piercing clarinet tone construct filigrees around one another. Bassist Uli Fussenegger, who has worked with fellow improv bassist Werner Dafeldecker as well as with the Klangforum, finally adds syncopated rhythms behind the unison woodwinds and strings as the variations on the theme abate.

Dafeldecker and Fussenegger are two exceptional Viennese bassists, Herbert is a third, and his fours-square work adds a foot-tapping pulse to the five quartet selections. Both “Fugitive Items” and the beginning of “Full Circle (pt. 1)” also find him introducing some flamenco-like strummed work à la Jimmy Garrison. Constructing short, rhythmic patterns on the later, he then duplicates hard-boppy walking bass, though no one will ever confuse Koglmann with Freddie Hubbard. Here Emery slides and slurs on his strings, turning the beat around to reintroduce the theme in “(pt. 2)”, before Coe and the flugelhornist purr and peep and the bassist double-stops a light-fingered, resonating tone.

Considerably more delicate, “Fugitive Items” seems to be all nylon string slurred fingering, Harmon-muted, semi-plunger tones and slithery clarinet lines as the three soloists follow one another while constructing variations on the theme. Coe (born in 1934), whose tenor tone sounds more like Stan Getz’s than any modification of Charlie Parker’s on “Bird’s Nest”, can also approximate Jimmy Giuffre’s reeds on “Down Home Tone Poem”, which in title and execution resembles the older reedman’s style, spiced with a soupçon of pretension. Featuring some folksy fingerpicking from Emery plus shadowing fills, it’s gentle jazz reliant on the light-toned bass, horn variations on the theme and some literal foot taps.

At last, the Emery CD that really reflects his talents.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Transformations - Music for 3 Improvisers and Orchestra:

1. Movement I - Archai 2. Movement II - The Flow Below 3. Interlude #1 4. Movement III - In a Myth 5. Interlude #2 6. Movement IV - Polarities 7. Interlude #3 8. Movement V - The Solar Body | 4Quartets 9. Fugitive Items 10. Down Home Tone Poem 11. Bird’s Nest 12. Full Circle (pt. 1) 13. Full Circle (pt. 2)

Personnel: Franz Koglmann (flugelhorn), Tony Coe (tenor saxophone, clarinet); James Emery (guitar); Peter Herbert (bass, 4 Quartets only); Klangforum Wien:

Sasa Dragovic (trumpet); Andreas Eberle (trombone); Christoph Walder (French horn); Wolfgang Zuser (flute, alto flute); Vera Fischer (flute, piccolo); Heinz-Peter Linshalm, Judith Lehner (clarinets); Donna Wagner Molinari (bass clarinet); Markus Deuter (oboe, English horn); Lorelei Dowling (bassoon, contrabassoon); Clemens Linder, Sophie Schafleitner (1st violins); Annette Bik, Aileen Dullaghen (2nd violins); Petra Ackermann, Andrew Jezek (violas); Florian Müller (piano); Benedikt Leitner, Andreas Lindenbaum (cellos); Uli Fussenegger (bass); Björn Wilker (vibraphone); Lukas Schiske (marimba, drums, percussion); Emilio Pomarico (conductor)