Leroy Jenkins’ Driftwood

The Art of Improvisation
Mutable Music 17523-2

Properly labeling his modus operandi here, Leroy Jenkins, jazz’s pre-eminent violinist, who has indulged in notated music, leads a quartet exploring the intricacies of improvisation and more.

While fiddler Jenkins is a long-time Free Jazzer, Rich O’Donnell hails from the legit world with 43 years as percussionist with the St. Louis Symphony. Min Xiao-Fen adapts the textures of the pipa, or Chinese lute; and Denman Maroney uses intervallic playing to make his prepared piano as much a percussive as a chordal instrument.

On four selections, the players utilize decisive strategies plus consummate instrumental techniques for an untraditional mix. Some episodes match deliberate internal piano string resonation with sprightly violin melodies. Others maximize the piano’s rhythmic friction to intersect with concussive tones from O’Donnell and spiccato from Jenkins. Min’s four strings and 30 frets allow her to produce harp-like glissandi or to counter the fiddler’s double-stopping with taut flat picking, as if she was playing a dobro. On “To Live”, the result is an improv Oriental hoedown with rasping emanating from both Min and Maroney’s hand-stopping, plus Jenkins’ sliding bow pressure referencing an erhu.

At 18 minutes, “To Sing” is thematic, with Maroney’s sound board technique allowing him to not only activate a legato melody, but also to duet its variations with himself. Later, Jenkins’ swift, sul ponticello textures deepen the mood with rigid string tapping and O’Donnell adds another reference as he approximates the strokes of an Inuit whale drum. Before the percussionist encapsulates the theme with bell shaking and wooden pops, Min alters her chromatic picking to caressing chime-like tones, and Jenkins wraps up the proceedings with high-pitched, abstract lines.

— Ken Waxman