Lisa Mezzacappa

avant NOIR
Clean Feed CF 401 CD

Often a set of compositions on a certain record are so cinematic that the usual bromide is that the collective sounds should be a film soundtrack. In a post-modern mash-up Bay area composer Lisa Mezzacappa has triumphed over the cliché. Like a graphic novel which illustrates a written concept in a different medium, avant NOIR’s eight tracks delineate classic detective yarn tropes, but are self-contained enough to stand on their own.

Modern technology is also used judiciously to demarcate these salutes to seminal works by Dashiell Hammett and Paul Auster. Not only are these audio belles-lettres burnished with arresting contributions from saxophonist Aaron Bennett, guitarist John Finkbeiner, percussionists William Winant and Jordan Glenn, but Mezzacappa’s use of sampled Film Noir dialogue underscored by Tim Perkis’ electronics adds extended processes plus memorable aphorisms to the purposeful fantasy.

For instance the dialogue between detective Sam Spade and baddie Caspar Gutman on “A Bird in the Hand” is commented on with slurping tenor saxophone runs and vibraphone plinks before the conversation’s content is emphasized still further by wave form vibrations and is completed with matched guitar and vibe riffs suggesting the villains slinking away. Similarly Peter Stillman’s Bedlam-like jabbering is captured with barely heard dialogue from a man and a woman, on “Babel”, the track’s punning title. Like a film director adding foreshadowing of a mystery via the soundtrack underscoring, the bassist’s arrangement shades the theme with discomforting reed deconstruction, metal bar plops and echoing siren-like string flanges from Bennett, Finkbeiner and Winant respectively. But she’s canny enough to not disrupt chromatic motion with these auguries.

Despite her position as auteur, avant NOIR is above all group music with only minor space made for individual bravado. Still like a well-drilled cast in a well-blocked out film, each player acquits him or herself adequately as part of a broader vision. Glenn consistently provides proper beat, with detours into Latin and Rock. Bennett can allude to noise as unique as bird sounds to ringing telephones as the same time as he showcases reed timbres ranging from muscular Coleman Hawkins-like power to cultivated West Coast cool affiliations. His showpieces frequently are doubled by Finkbeiner’s impulses, performed with Barney Kessel-like fleetness and fluidity. Although occupied with the compositional framework, Mezzacappa’s rasgueado introduction to “The Ballad of Big Flora” confirms her skills as an improvising bassist, while Winant’s glass-brittle vibes’ slaps outlining toughness and vulnerability of the subject on the same track certify his.

Overall the CD’s most compelling track is “Medley on the Big Knockover”, which quilt-like knits together outer-space-like electronic sputters, the equivalent of San Francisco traffic movement and crashes, edge-of-town country guitar picking, inner-directed saxophone downwards doits and drum and vibes interlacing. The resulting tune reflects the staccato, haunting and constantly mobile personality of Hammett’s Continental Op.

Mezzacappa may have composed one variation on a soundtrack. But it’s one that doesn’t need a feature film to complete it.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Fillmore Street 2. The Ballad of Big Flora 3. Army Street 4. Medley on the Big Knockover (Green St./At Larrouy’s Bar/Montgomery St.) 5. A Bird in the Hand 6. Quinn’s Serenade 7. Ghosts (Black and White, then Blue) 8. Babel

Personnel: Aaron Bennett (tenor saxophone); John Finkbeiner (guitar); William Winant (vibraphone, percussion, Foley); Lisa Mezzacappa (bass, samples); Jordan Glenn (drums) and Tim Perkis (electronics)