James Falzone/The Renga Ensemble

The Room Is
Allos Documents 010

Like a bee which continuously transfers nectar from one plant to another, Chicago-based composer/clarinetist James Falzone flashes among Jazz, academe, so-called classical, liturgical, World and improvised musics. Illustrative of this approach is the six-piece, all-reeds, Renga Ensemble, which melds compositions and improvisations. Unlike the flying drone not all the textures Falzone conveys are sweet. But the 14 tracks here could serve as textbook example of how to operate a woodwind ensemble.

As technically adroit as players whose allegiance is in other fields, all the members of this ensemble have strong Jazz-improv background. Besides the leader, who plays Bb and Eb clarinet, three members of the sextet are Chicagoans: bass clarinetist Jason Stein, Keefe Jackson, who plays tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and contra Bb bass clarinet and Ken Vandermark, playing Bb clarinet, bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. Bay area Bb clarinetist and contra Eb alto clarinetist Ben Goldberg and Brooklyn-based alto saxophonist and Bb clarinetist Ned Rothenberg complete the line-up.

Although Falzone composed sequences for each of the performers, the results have as much in common with traditional Jazz solos or notated music concertos as an armadillo does with a bull dog or a milk cow. All are animals, all right, but rather than flashy bravura, the solo spots are as deliberately integrated into the group vision as workers are on a Maoist collective farm. The ensemble’s name in itself promotes the concept: Renga is a genre of Japanese collaborative poetry.

A listen to “The Second Renga”, a feature for Vandermark and “The Sixth Renga”, Stein’s showcase, illuminates the refinements that go into Falzone’s collectivist compositional skills. On the first Vandermark’s rhino-like snorting is only singularly prominent midway through the piece; the rest of the time he joins with woody bass clarinets to provide connective resonations as the higher-pitched reeds wheeze like a flock of wild fowl. While all this happens, a succulent clarinet trills surmounts the cacophony. Stein’s intermezzo finds the other five united in riffing accordion-like tones as he slowly blends a series of slurs and smears into a languid-balladic-like theme.

Falzone’s skills don’t stop with his unique adaptations on the solo-band arrangements. His longer compositions are binary, in that they reflect other sounds, as well as suturing the close harmonies implicit in a reed choir. The more than 13½ -minute “Until” for instance is built up from sonorous phrasing where one player tosses the melody to another and so on. As group tremolos are stacked upon one another, individuals dig down further to dredge out singular timbres like prickly whines from the clarinets and low-pitched snores from the saxophones. With subsequent torque ranging from altissimo screams to modulated blends, the ensemble responses recall those of hard-hitting R&B horn sections able to spread unifying smoothness and this-side-of-avant-garde skronks with equal facility. Eventually locomotive-like pulsing moves the remaining strident tones downwards so that all six players conclude the piece with near corps de ballet lockstep. Other tracks such as “The Room Is” with its pipe-organ-like like glissandi and stop-start saxophone harmonies suggest what would happen if ROVA played ecclesiastical music. Meanwhile “White” is a tone poem of haphazard snorts, shrills and judders paced by dramatic pauses, with the horns behaving like a wolf pack following different alpha males, working itself into a collective texture reminiscent of the arrangement of “Ascension”.

It’s too early to see if Flazone’s ideas on aggregate improvisation and composition will in the future resonate like John Coltrane’s vision. But he’s certainly created an eventful session here that offers plenty of musical nutrition.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Prelude 2. Not Seeing 3. The First Renga 4. The Second Renga 5. The Room Is 6. Interlude 7. White 8. The Third Renga 9. The Fourth Renga 10. Until 11. The Fifth Renga 12. The Sixth Renga 13. That Red Apple 14. Postlude

Personnel: James Falzone (Bb and Eb clarinets); Ben Goldberg (Bb clarinet, contra Eb alto clarinet); Jason Stein (bass clarinet); Ned Rothenberg (Bb clarinet, alto saxophone); Keefe Jackson (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, contra Bb bass clarinet); Ken Vandermark (Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone)