Anna Webber / Matt Mitchell / John Hollenbeck

December 6, 2014


Skirl Records 027


Jagged Spheres

No label No #

By Ken Waxman

A Brooklyn resident since 2008, Kelowna B.C.-native Anna Webber’s work has followed two trajectories aptly defined on these releases. A tenor saxophonist/flutist who studied music in Montreal, NYC and Berlin, she has an urban side – reflected in the cooperative Jagged Spheres trio’s emphasis on seamlessly combining composition and improvisation in its work – plus a rustic one which permeates her compositions on Simple. That CD’s pieces were all written during a Webber sojourn on Bowen Island, near Vancouver.

Nonetheless with an identical number of tracks, exactly the same instrumentation and recorded less than one year apart, divisions between Simple and Jagged Spheres aren’t excessively pronounced. In some ways, the advanced interaction on the first CD may be more complicated than that on the latter. Matt Mitchell’s purposefully sophisticated piano work and John Hollenbeck’s wide-ranging percussion patterns partner her on Simple. Meanwhile the other Jagged Edge members are classically trained Austrian pianist Elias Stemeseder and local drummer Devin Gray.

Atmospheric with sequences reminiscent of contemporary notated music, the key to Jagged Spheres is how jazz-based improvisations add warmth to the recurrently formal and frosty expositions that characterize the introductory “Jaggedsphere” and other tunes. In complete contrast the group instant composition that is “Two And A Half” could be a carnival soundtrack. It’s a lilting tune which pleasantly shoves together Crazy Otto-like piano plunks, top-of-cymbal scrubs and shrilling flute puffs for vibrating stimulation. Weber’s “For Erik” as well is almost viscerally theatrical. Ominous piano chords set up Stemeseder’s lower-case glissandi that coupled with harsh percussion clip-clops provide the connective ostinato as the tenor saxophonist circles through a collection of dramatically expressive tongue slaps and slurs. Even as atonal a piece as “Two” with its disconnected piano and percussion clanks and vibrations, gains comforting humanism from Webber’s adjacent flute peeping and whistling.

There’s also a comforting skein of syncopated buoyancy that takes the formal edge off the CD’s nearly 20½-minute, multi-section showpiece, which in title alone, confirms the trio’s big city orientation: Gray’s “Getting Hit Off My Bike, By a Nice Cab Driver At 3:33 am In Williamsburg”. Hard bop tropes soon ease into limpid piano plinks and low-frequency flute chirps only to shift dramatically as sax shrills, sustaining key plucks and percussion crunches –mirror the accident’s impact, until this agitation gives way to harmonic convergence of low-key drum and cymbal rattles plus hollow-tube sax blowing from Webber. Stemeseder’s metronomic chording and pseudo-processional drumming signal the accommodating conclusion.

Open to as many program interpretations as the other CD, Simple revolves around Mitchell’s and Hollenbeck’s preference for unusual textures. Especially notable are those instances where keyboard and drum sounds are conspicuously flattened so instrumental identification is masked. This is something that works particularly well during the stop-time finale of “Simplify, Simplify”. More generic is a tune such as “Washington”. The murky composition recalls Webber’s glimpse of the nearby state’s mountain from the island. At points combing ethereal flute lisps and drum top wipes conveys the lonely feeling of waves lapping against the shore. Meanwhile the concluding “Zigzag” criss-crosses through thematic confluence until it settles into a chromatic tune that reflects pastoral contentment.

On some of her others tracks, Webber used Morse code to determine pitches, swirling the results into cunning swing. Yet “1994” for example is more notable for her emotional reed elaborations than any compositional trickery. Chamber-music-like keyboard fillip from Mitchell is contrasted by Hollenbeck’s irregular drum patterns. Overall though, her upturned reed lines manage to blend individual parts into a harmonic finale.

Despite its title, a track like “I Don’t Want to Be Happy” is a hard swinger featuring pounding piano and splashing drum beats. When Webber adds sax split tones to the mix it demonstrates that there’s musical strength and sophistication even in a rural setting.

On these similar but individual releases, Webber aptly demonstrates her skills as player and writer. No doubt future CDs will confirm the depth of her talents.

Tracks: Simple: Carnophobia; Emoticon; 1994; Simplify Simplify; Washington; I Don’t Want To Be Happy; Zigzag

Personnel: Simple: Anna Webber: flute, alto flute, tenor saxophone; Matt Mitchell: piano, prepared piano; John Hollenbeck: drums, percussion

Tracks: Jagged: Jaggedsphere; For Erik; Health Bars; Two And A Half; Getting Hit Off My Bike, By a Nice Cab Driver At 3:33am In Williamsburg; Two; Nineeight

Personnel: Jagged: Anna Webber: flute, tenor saxophone; Elias Stemeseder: piano; Devin Gray: drums

–For The New York City Jazz Record December 2014