As the Cicada Breaths
Abzu 003

Narrowly avoiding an ensnarement in the quicksand of World Music, the Michigan-based Sublingual Ensemble is determined to subjugate different musical currents to its singular vision,

This five-tune recital is most impressive when the singularity of the unusual instruments – which include steel drum, ba-hu, recorder, hukaphone, shakers and wood whistles – is integrating into an organic presentation. It’s less than successful when the cross-blown currents of the ethnic flutes propel the tunes towards wafting intermezzos that almost skirt New Ageism.

Luckily this group of semi-pro sonic explorers works fitfully to overcome this, though, to be truthful, the CD’s two most successful tracks are its first, the more-than-15½-minute “Bone People”; and final, the almost 13½-minute “Cicada Tours the Ribcage”. Each allots enough space so that the piping textures that variously come from flute, wood whistles recorder, and ba-hu, a hybrid Chinese flute, finally open up into unrushed swing.

Constructed like one of those pointillist Art Ensemble of Chicago pieces, the former composition unwinds from scene-setting that involves understated flams and cymbal sizzles from percussionist Michael Nastos, nasal soprano saxophone lines from Piotr Michalowski and warping flute-line tones from James Cornish and Elijah Church. Stopping and shaking, Rob Crozier’s thick bass resonation seems to go its own way until it coaxes others to turn to ratcheting and shaking. Half way through, the piece suddenly takes off, mutating as Crozier and Nastos pump out a steady beat and as squeaking reed and brass chirps turn straightahead. Submerging flute echoes, an even more insistent funk beat appears, with the saxophonist winding soprano vibrations around the repetitive bass line,

Less committed to a straightforward rhythm, “Cicada Tours the Ribcage” doesn’t ignite in exhilaration until its final quarter, as Michalowski honks and Cornish lets loose with some controlled triplets. Earlier, as squeaking sax lines and brass flurries try to obscure that insistent flute chirping, Crozier is showcased in a reasonable, doubled-stopped bass solo and Nastos’ hukaphone ployrhythms give way to resonating percussion with the deep-tones of an Inuit whaleskin drum. Catching up with the tune’s first variation, the piece ends with reed overblowing making common cause with what in other circumstances could be dizi or shakuhachi timbres,.

Despite a musical environment that appears to mix a synthesis of sounds that could be linked to kalimba strokes, plaintive string-based tremolos, powerful percussion ratcheting and warbing reed tones, high-pitched flute impressionism predominates on the other tracks. No sooner do tough, percussive rumbles or dobro-like string chording appear, then languendo flute-like pitches nearly mask them. No Japanese winds-and-strings Sankyoku three-instrument ensemble, these light-textured harmonies almost shove these tunes into dense World Music. Fortunately, the ensemble resuscitates the pieces before logginess settles in – but it’s a close call.

AS THE CICADA BREATHS was recorded in June 2004, and since then the Sublingual Ensemble has improved immeasurably in live performance. This CD can serve as an entrée to the band, but probably the next one will be the real keeper.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Bone People 2. Gregor Encounters a Tavern 3. Sparse Glide Across a Fresh Field 4. Divination Attempts by Example 5. A Cicada Tours the Ribcage

Personnel: James Cornish (cornet, flute, percussion and electric violin); Piotr Michalowski (soprano and sopranino saxophones and bass clarinet); Elijah Church (ba-hu recorder, whistles); Rob Crozier (bass, chromatic harmonica, steel drum and percussion); Michael G. Nastos (drums, cymbals, hubkaphone, bells, wood whistles, Tiger squeak toy, voice, shakers and miscellaneous percussion)