Peter Madsen’s Seven Sins Ensemble

Never Bet the Devil Your Head
Playscape PSR #042317

Having already saluted in a unique manner American icons such as Thelonious Monk and Elvis Presley [!], Wisconsin-born pianist Peter Madsen turns his attention to an influential literary figure who died even younger than Presley: Edgar Allan Poe. The author was as original in his conceptions as Monk was in his; and responsible for initiating as many Yank variants of writing like romantic poetry, Gothic novels and the detective story, as Presley did in popular music. Naming each of the session’s 10 tracks for a particular Poe work, Madsen, who lives in both New York and Vorarlberg, Austria, creates compositions and arrangements that adapt elements of improvised and notated music to particular ends. To attain equity between melody and rhythm, a basic jazz rhythm section of bassist Herwig Hammerl and drummer Martin Grabher, interacts with a string quartet of violinists Aleksandra Lartseva and Monica Tarcsay, violist Simon Frick and cellist Bianca Riesner. Besides Madsen, the main soloist is trumpeter Herbert Walser, equally at home playing Jazz and so-called classical music.

Less programmatic than track titles would imply, the program ranges from solemnity to gaiety. Along the way, strings surge, stretch and speckle the compositions, sometimes joining the rhythm section to work astride the beat. Walser’s whorls and wiggles are usually muted and ethereal, frequently recital-formal, but able to pick up looseness from Hammerl’s walking bass line and Grabher’s cymbal accents. When not literally playing lead, the trumpeter interacts or intersects with the pianist’s strategies. Sympathetic rather than striking, Madsen’s playing is as effective pulling together musical strands, as well as, on “The Raven” and “The Fall of the House of Usher “, for instance, where his swirling lines and enhanced pattering are reminiscent of McCoy Tyner’s protracted time-suspending improvisations. With its kick-drum intro and string slashes as well, “The Fall of the House of Usher” turns from macabre to gentle swing,

Without resorting to cliché, Madsen also makes use of the cello’s and viola’s natural mournfulness on “The Masque of the Red Death” combining that with swift string-stopping to extend ominous timbres. Other tracks soar with an Eastern European dance lilt as on “The Cask of Amontillado”, where the stride keyboard narrative, soon turns from key-clipping dissonance to tonality joined by boisterous brass puffs. This originality also extends to themes which draw from harder Rock-like beats. However there are also some missteps, as when pumping strings, flutter-tonguing brass and stomping rhythm sounds more like a 20th Century film soundtrack than a celebration of 19th Century inventions.

Taken as a whole though, Never Bet the Devil Your Head stands alongside Madsen’s other notable works as confirmation of his skills as pianist, orchestrator and composer.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. The Raven 2. A Dream Within a Dream 3. The Tell-Tale Heart 4. The Cask of Amontillado 5. The Sphinx 6. Never Bet The Devil Your Head 7. The Fall of the House of Usher 8. Mesmeric Revelation 9. The Masque of the Red Death 10. A Descent Into the Maelstrom

Personnel: Herbert Walser (trumpet); Aleksandra Lartseva, Monica Tarcsay (violin); Simon Frick (viola); Bianca Riesner (cello); Peter Madsen (piano); Herwig Hammerl (bass) and Martin Grabher (drums)