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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘jazz

It Would Be Easier If by Ken Thomson and Slow/Fast: An Album Review

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I continue my exploration of “jazz” music that inhabits a genre best described as “other” with It Would be Easier If, a new album released in the United States on November 9 by Ken Thomson and the ensemble Slow/Fast.  Ken Thomson is a Brooklyn-based composer, clarinetist, and saxophonist who writes fully-formed and notated jazz compositions that are then fleshed out by Slow/Fast—trumpeter Russ Johnson, bassist Adam Armstrong, guitarist Nir Felder, and drummer Fred Kennedy.

Generally speaking, I think that once the genre has been identified, in order to introduce the listener to the music itself, it’s best to leave genre classifications far behind and simply enjoy the well-crafted music or what it is, irrespective of what label someone attaches to it.

And so we have the highly provocative It Would Be Easier If, by Ken Thomson and Slow/Fast, an album comprised of five tracks, nearly all of them at least 9 minutes long.

“Kleine Helmet” features a ruminative melody in the trumpet and bass clarinet, which proves to be an inspired timbre combination.  The texture and overall mood here is illuminated by the inclusion of Nir Felder’s electric guitar, with chords that waft in the air like some welcome and lingering fragrance.  Interestingly, as the opening track, “Kleine Helmet” acts as a palette cleanser of sorts, alleviating the effects of whatever other music you were just listening to, or whatever other activity you were engage in prior to this.

After the almost meditative nature of the opener, the listener previously uninitiated in the work of Ken Thomson may find “Goddamn You, Ice Cream Truck” a real shock.  The immediate auditory assault of distorted guitar more commonly found in alternative rock and certain derivations of hardcore is quickly joined by the twin riffs of trumpet and clarinet, first in unison with one another.  But then the instruments diverge, both rhythmically and melodically, as chromaticism creeps in to add further tension.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever consciously thought of jazz as aggressive music (and certainly not angst-ridden), but while listening to “Goddamn You,” that’s exactly what I thought.  The brilliance of the rhythmic precision here cannot be overstated.  Thomson sees the congruities of jazz and hard rock, in both the licks and the rhythms they employ, and perhaps more importantly the emotions both musics can embody.

Throughout, the drums are an indispensable constant, but with all the activity in the sonic foreground, the brilliance of Fred Kennedy on this song may go unnoticed at first.  An extended improvised guitar solo from Nir Felder allows the listener to focus solely on the melody and the groove in which it nestles, at least temporarily.

Again in “Goddamn You, Ice Cream Truck,” Thomson’s intuition and compositional prowess comes to the fore—his uncanny sense of musical architecture, pacing, and interestingly, portion size.  By this I mean that Thomson seems to understand that there is only so much the human ear can pick up on and latch onto at any given time, and with this in mind, presents his musical ideas succinctly and in digestible amounts.  There is never “too much” sound, too much to listen to at any one time, and he never lingers on a particular theme longer than is prudent.

The song “No, no, no” begins with drummer Kennedy painting a decidedly more ambient and abstract landscape for the first 82 seconds of the song, before trumpet and clarinet chime in with harmonic drones that wash over the ear in ways that can be soothing one moment, slightly apprehension-building the next.  The guitar rounds out the textural and timbre-related imbalances that come with the absence of  palpable low-voice presence.  A shorter drum solo interjects itself into the drone, and the full force of the drone dissipates, only slightly, to make room for a tasty sax outro.  “No, no, no” is a striking composition worth poring over, beautiful and grating all at once.  And as the median track on the album, it serves as the influential force of balance tying the other four pieces together.

“Wanderangst” sounds like the title suggests.   The track starts off much like any other “standard” contemporary jazz piece, plus the petite twinkling of a glockenspiel.  But these elements only lull the listener into a false sense of security.   Any perceived meandering gets obliterated with frenzied licks that will cause severe melodic dizziness, even while the players articulate the notes with pinpoint accuracy and unmitigated intensity.  Any further verbal explanation would not do this piece justice.

“It Would Be Easier If” is a perfectly acceptable closing track, but after four consecutive edge-of-your-seat musical microcosms, a first listen to this final song found it somehow lacking when compared to the dynamism of the others.  That being said, the song ends in an unexpected place, and the result is a satisfying one that rewards repeat listens.

It Would Be Easier If is a crazily engaging set of musical compositions that demand equally engaged listening. Thomson takes his listeners on a sonic joyride that proves as meticulous and well-crafted as it is raucous and unpredictable.  The lines between jazz, prog-rock, and hardcore/metal elements were never smeared with such blessed creativity as they are here. Thomson has a real knack for creating music that has momentum, a clear arc that communicates to the listener,  “We’re going somewhere, and it’s going to be intriguing.”

Written by winebrick41

November 10, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Manifesto by Dan Berg and The Gestalt: An Album Review

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This eight-song collection, released in September 2010, represents the debut offering from composer/keyboardist Dan Berg and his contemporary jazz outfit, simply called The Gestalt.

One is struck almost immediately by how Berg and company distinguish themselves from the musical pack, irrespective of genre.  In album opener “Waiting for the Next Hit,” we first hear a triangle ostinato followed by an utterly ethereal and operatic vocalise from classically trained singer Kristin Young.  But the song also clearly demonstrates the Gestalt’s ability to dig into a groove and stay there, bolstered by Matt Wigton’s delectable bass hook, as adventurous clarinet and saxophone solos demonstrate the obvious jazz/funk prowess of Adrian Mira and Jessica Lurie, respectively.

“Why is a Crooked Letter,” track no. 2—which my dear late high school choral teacher Mr. G once explained to me was a crucial position, with the second song of an album functioning as the “hit” of the bunch—brings the listener more squarely into jazz territory.  The electric bass is noticeably less apparent than on “Waiting for the Next Hit,” but Berg’s steady rhythmic leadership and intuitive chordal sensibilities take the fore with satisfying results.  It’s not too difficult to get lost in the piano’s sustain, the swell of chord after chord buoyed by the tight drumming of Pat Agresta.

For me the beauty of jazz is in the all-consuming details of the rhythms, the intricacies of the melodies and their accompanying harmonization, and the pleasure I derive from embracing them.  Jazz affords me the opportunity to indulge in these things more than any other genre I think, and I tend to manifest my enjoyment physically—complete with emphatic head movements and varied facial gesticulations.  Perhaps both appropriately and ironically, the song “Relish Your Fears” found me relishing the musical nuances, particularly those found in the electrifying sax solo from Lurie.

The fourth tune, entitled “Timshel (Thou Mayest),” sees the return of Young to the mix, accompanied by gorgeous piano balladry from Berg.  The work is somewhat of a stylistic anomaly—sounding as if it can’t decide whether it’s an art song suitable for recital or a slow-burning crooner best heard in a dimly lit club.  At first listen, this seems like a problem.  But maybe Berg shouldn’t have to decide one way or the other; and fortunately, he doesn’t split the stylistic difference in ways that feel contrived or patronizing. Young possesses an endearing yet clarion soprano, bright and shimmering, capable of either no vibrato at all or an alluring, light flutter of tone.  What sounds very much at home in the art song camp eventually gives way to a playful tango featuring another vocalise, which in turn evolves into an absolutely stunning soft jam, with the voice functioning as solo instrument.  Young’s voice here seems nearly incomparable in beauty and imbued with seductiveness somehow extraterrestrial. The fluidity with which Berg accomplishes the harmony of these seemingly disparate styles makes this song a clear highlight of the album.

“Hook it Up” perfectly demonstrates Dan Berg’s ability as a composer to create seamless, smartly crafted melodies that embed themselves indelibly into the sumptuous chord progressions, and likewise do the same in the mind of the listener.  This gem is further enhanced by quick tweaks in time signatures, going from 4/4 to 5/4 and back again.  The rhythmic tandem of Wigton and Agresta is really “in the pocket” here, and their blend of precision and style tie this work together convincingly.  Simply put, “Hook it Up” is perhaps the best track on the recording.

“Vibrant Phases” once again features the vocal work of Young, this time with the melody spending considerable time in her lower and middle ranges.  Unfortunately, her voice sounds somewhat pedestrian here, and it is only when the melody returns to the sweet spot of Ms. Young’s tessitura, between F6 and C6, that we again experience the full gift of her vocal talent. Also, it has to be mentioned that Berg’s melody here, particularly in the higher vocal register, is truly remarkable—I recommend really sinking your ears into this one.

Anyone interested in new music—jazz or otherwise, and contemporary American music composition particular—should give this album genuine repeated listens.  Berg and the Gestalt prove that they are not beholden to any one genre, or the stylistic tendencies that that genre may push the musician to embrace.  Instead, Berg’s fully notated compositions follow only the intrinsic truth and logic of the music itself, and his band faithfully interprets his songs with more than enough competence and a decent dose of brilliance.  As a Manifesto, this record definitely works.  It also works simply as great music.

Written by winebrick41

November 3, 2010 at 5:22 pm

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