July 2, 2011
Fifty Miniatures for Improvising Quintet
Skipstone Records SR006
Daniel Levin Quartet
Clean Feed CF 212 CD
No longer an anomaly, the cello as part of an improvising ensemble is now as common as the presence of other so-called orchestral instruments in that context. Furthermore since modern cellists involved in Free Music are schooled in its unique history, rather than being doubling bassists, the breadth of the instrument’s colors, both pizzicato and arco, are more meaningfully adapted to these situations.
Two experienced American cello stylists demonstrate this freedom on these CDs. A variation of program music, Erik Friedlander’s session is inspired by the 14th letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The 50 miniatures gathered into seven separate tracks, reflect the 50 days or seven weeks the biblical Israelites wandered in the desert until they received the 10 Commandments. Although the cellist and his hand-picked combo – violinist Jennifer Choi, pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, bassist Trevor Dunn and drummer Mike Sarin – all have experience working in Jewish music contexts, and the piece was created with support from The Contemporary Jewish Museum, the textures are hardly soldered to overtly Klezmer, Hebraic, Fralicher or liturgical themes. Considering too that each player has excessive experience with Rock, Jazz, notated and other musics limiting his or her musical expression would be self-defeating.
If Fifty Miniatures is a stylized suite, orchestrated to reflect differing moods, varying the textures through sonic washes as well as in-the-moment digressions, Organic Modernism encapsulates another chapter in the on-going tale of a simpatico working group. Together since 2002, with only two personnel changes, the latter of which took place four years ago, the low-key, chamber Jazz produced by this combo may make it the Modern Jazz Quartet of the 21st century – although it’s difficult to envision them sporting the MJQ’s matching tuxedos.
Almost a generation younger than Friedlander, the cellist’s band mates – trumpeter Nate Wooley, vibraphonist Matt Moran and bassist Peter Bitenc – are equally callow. Like the Friedlander crew though each is also a bandleader and collectively play Jazz, Rock and ethnic musics, and have worked with musicians ranging from drummer Paul Lytton to saxophonist Chris Speed.
With five compositions by Levin and the other seven group efforts, the CD’s emphasis is on the on storytelling and harmonizing extended techniques rather than eclecticism for its own sake. Considering the instrumentation as well, the overall sound is sometimes reminiscent of two ground-breaking 1950s chamber Jazz ensembles, vibist Red Norvo’s trio with bassist Charles Mingus and Chico Hamilton’s first quintet which matched Carson Smith’s bass with Fred Katz’s cello. This harmonic affiliation is perhaps best demonstrated on the Levin’s “Old School”, especially if venerable institution being celebrated is Third Stream chamber-improv. Commencing with a steaming bass line, the theme is first stated darkly but lyrically by the composer, then elaborated with cascading note showers from the vibes and hand-muted rubato brass notes. Linear and delicate these tasteful expressions mate conclusively with Levin’s angled string scratches. Eventually Moran’s motor quivers introduce a conclusive diminuendo, with the line fading as Bitenc’s strong pacing links its final notes to the exposition.
Overall though, the sparse arrangements of the Levin combo are tougher than those attempted by Hamilton’s or Norvo’s combos. That’s likely because of the dramatic asides available from Wooley’s brass instrument. “Active Imagination” for instance, concludes the set while leaving behind an aura reflecting the round-robin response of each quartet member. These include cylindrical vibe resonation mixes with stopped and scrubbed strings plus the friction created by the trumpeter’s curved air spits or inward breath gulps. With audacity, Wooley elsewhere lopes off the harmonized completion of Levin’s “Audacity”, after brightening the narrative with capillary squeaks and mutated cross tones from his mouthpiece. Leaving the bassist to preserve the rhythm, Moran’s vibes skim over the theme with multi-tonal clinks, while the cellist meditatively triple-stops. The composer obviously doesn’t protest these liberties taken. A similar display of rubato chromaticism from Wooley, plus ringing mallets on vibes and double bass pulsing is harmonized with Levin’s abrasive spiccato cadenzas in a piece entitled “My Kind of Poetry”.
A different sort of poetry is showcased on Fifty Miniatures for Improvising Quintet, which despite its celebration of Old Testament values is as in the modern moment as anything produced by the Levin Four. Paradoxically though, notwithstanding Friedlander’s desire to make original music, the sounds also hint at the traditional, especially during the seven melodies that make up the intermezzo that is track 2, and the inter-related miniatures of the same number that become track 6.
Commencing with an exposition that could be a Hebraic anthem, its quixotic qualities are quickly stripped away beneath dynamic piano chording and internal string-scrapes from Courvoisier plus Sarin’s heavy drum beats. Choi’s squeaky lines and a waterfall of keyboard stops and starts confirm the thematic dissonance. This becomes even more apparent as drum flams and string sluices provide a broken-chord contrast to the composer’s moderato plucking. As for track 6, it’s the pianist who introduces a mock-baroque interlude one-third of the way through, with this invention joined by Choi’s limning of the allegro, romantic theme. Nevertheless the massed string swells, plus Dunn’s vibrating bass line which start off the piece, soon concentrate with further sul ponticello glissandi and sul tasto rasps, and are extended with the drummer’s near march tempo and subsequent highly rhythmic kinetic piano lines.
Dissonance and legato textures play peek-a-boo through the seven brief lines which make up track 3. There are points though where the arrangement, which stack high-pitched stops and harmonies from the three stringed instruments, make the results seem like a chamber trio parody. Contrapuntally the converse of this melody’s (mock) tenderness rests with wood resonating strategies from the pianist that bring in the action, soundboard and capotes as much as the keys.
Throughout as well, even though ornamental, impressionistic and ever-so-vaguely Arabic colors make their way into the performance, Friedlander’s 50 miniatures are more noteworthy for their encouragement of dexterity and virtuosity than any attempt to shackle individual sounds to programming.
Whether the genesis was religious in Friedlander’s case or organic as in Levin’s, the substance of these sessions is that both are made up of exceptionally played absolute music. Either can be appreciated without looking at track titles or program notes.
Track Listing: Fifty: 01: 1. Stepping 2. Tangle 3. Like a Dream 4. Spider 5. A Settling Fog 6. The Fool 7. Solitary // 02: 8. War Cry 9. Harbinger 10. Retaliation 11. The Fool: Repose 12. Blink 13. Express 14. Soul Bird// 03: 15. Bad Pool 16. The Moon 17. Night Flower 18. Death Rattle 19. No Answers 20. Machine 21. Hunted // 04: 22. Molting 23. Swift 24. Flow 25. Spikes 26. Dainty 27. The Fool: Serious Matters 28. Undulation// 05: 29. Liquid 30. Headlong 31. Bone 32. Run Into Waves 33. Taking Hold 34. Show of Force 35. Fracture // 06. 36. Drought 37. Balance 38. On Point 39. Crossing 40. Stacks 41. Soft Steps 42. Tussle // 07. 43. Meditation 44. A Story Ends 45. Hazards 46. Acorn 47. Noir 48. Salon 49. Blackberry 50. Persist
Personnel: Fifty: Jennifer Choi (violin); Sylvie Courvoisier (piano); Erik Friedlander (cello); Trevor Dunn (bass) and Mike Sarin (percussion)
Track Listing: Organic: 1. Action Painting 2. Zero Gravity 3. My Kind of Poetry 4. Lattice 5. Kaleidoscope 6. Old School 7. Constellations 8. Furniture as Sculpture 9. Audacity 10. Expert Set 11. Wild Kingdom 12. Active Imagination
Personnel: Organic: Nate Wooley (trumpet); Matt Moran (vibraphone); Daniel Levin (cello) and Peter Bitenc (bass)