Mysterium

For Quintet
Eavesdrop Records 002

Featuring extended essays in improvisation, For Quintet is the ultimate example of truth in packaging. The bare-bones two-CD set includes nothing more than the performers’ names, instruments, tune titles and recording information.

While the sonic strength of the nine short tracks – on the first disc – and the almost 51-minute improv, which takes up all of CD two, eloquently speak for themselves, a bit of background is in order.

Briefly, Mysterium is comprised of a cross section of accomplished, New York-based players with experience in the jazz, free music, pop and so-called serious music fields. Veteran Daniel Carter, who plays trumpet, flute, clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone here, has been a vibrant part of the scene for years, most prominently in TEST and the various projects of bassist William Parker. Trombonist Steve Swell, who leads or co-leads many combos, is also in Parker’s big band and works with associates such as saxophonists Gebhard Ullman and Sabir Mateen. Playing both acoustic and electric double bass, Terence Murren works in genres as different as Alt-Cajun and free improv. Gil Selinger, who plays cello, electric cello and electric organ has performed with and conducted the New York Soundpainting Orchestra and plays in string trios. Drummer and clarinetist Eric Eigner, a visual artist, is also part of the Soundpainting Orchestra.

Eigner’s visual arts background suggests the idea of large and small sonic canvases. For as vibrant as some of the interactive musical tinctures are on the nine tracks on disc it seems that Mysterium’s most impressive collective sound-painting is done on the large scale “Tomorrow is a Long Today”.

Still, considering the nine miniatures as preliminary sketches for the 51-minute aural image, reveals various techniques daubed onto the smaller canvases. Styles range from faux impressionistic to hard-edged modernism, while sfumato overlays churn these sometimes contrasting styles together.

For instance “Dancing the Galliard” is set up with pitter-patterning bounces from Eigner and intervallic leaps from Carter’s alto saxophone. Initially, Selinger sets the pace by first sounding a close cousin to “Blue Monk”, then double-stopping, triggered, screechy bass and organ impulses that underline the improvisations.

Swell’s or Selinger’s pumping organ lines on “Rope-A-Dope” resemble the Swing shuffles of Wild Bill Davis than anything more modern. Couple those sounds with the march tempo of Eigner’s drums, the vamping triplets from Carter’s trumpet and slurs from the trombone and the result appears almost circus-like.

Other tunes are borne along on double counterpoint walking from the two string players; or Murren’s sluicing electric bass runs and Selinger electric cello spiccato scratch with enough overtones to sound like two legit players. Blasting guttural tailgate tones from Swell mix it up with chromatic New Thing-like broken chords from Carter’s tenor saxophone, whereas elsewhere their duets encompass irregular grace notes and tremolo tonguing from the trombonist plus braying trumpet explosions from Carter. Meanwhile, Eigner ruffs, rolls and rebounds on his regular kit to match the saxman’s barnyard squalling or the boneman’s plunger textures.

However, just as French Impressionist Claude Monet and Surrealist Salvador Dali individually needed an immense canvas on which to respectively create masterpieces such as “The Waterlillies” and “Santiago el Grande”, so Mysterium needs something the length of “Tomorrow is a Long Today” to fully exhibits its collective talent.

Once the wiggling, polyphonic pitches and broken octave drops are absorbed into a concentrated, tremolo exposition, separate sections break apart, with clarinet glissandi, pitch-sliding burrs from the trombone and wide-spaced string sawing most noticeable. Switching to flute, Carter’s lines slide as Swell’s braying single notes ascend, then meet graduated unselected beats and staccato string patterning. It’s as if a classical string duo and a brass and drum aggregation are passing one another in a village square.

Soon what could be sputtering overtones of a roller-ring pipe organ seep into the aural miasma. Concluding every-which-way theme variations, the five then draw back for individual strokes: consistent staccato string bending from the cellist, lip vibrato daubing and exaggerated split tones from Carter’s alto saxophone; and concentrated drum bounces and rim shots. During the penultimate variant, contrapuntal brass vamps coalesce behind adagio interface between widely vibrated tenor saxophone lines and shrill cello harmonics. Finally the bubbling slurp of the electric bass and the drummer’s subtle beat introduce Selinger’s moderato melody plus Carter wavering saxophone obbligatos. But before the theme starts again, conclusive and repetitive polyrhythmic patterns from electric bass end the interface.

Improvisations from one day of intense and rigorous improvisation, the group inspiration is on show on large or small musical canvases here.

— Ken Waxman

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Track Listing: Disc 1:1. Top-Dog-Lucky is a Long Shot 2. Lit Up Red At Night 3. Cockatoo 4. Dancing the Galliard 5. Regarding the Thinking of Stones 6. Who Threw the Blame? 7. Tousled Heads 8. Rope-A-Dope 9. Or Just a Patchwork Quilt Disc 2:1. Tomorrow is a Long Today

Personnel: Daniel Carter (trumpet, flute, clarinet, alto and tenor saxophone); Steve Swell (trombone and electric organ); Gil Selinger (cello, electric cello and electric organ); Terence Murren (bass and electric bass) and Eric Eigner (drums, tabletop percussion and clarinet)