Wednesday, December 05, 2012

CD Reviews: James Ilgenfritz & Maroney/Ilgenfritz/Niescier/Drury

James Ilgenfritz
Compositions (Braxton) 2011
(Infrequent Seams)

Next to solo drum albums, solo bass albums can be the most challenging of the lone-instrument albums. Solitary horns seem to have a wealth of sonic possibilities, and the piano and guitar can be whole bands unto themselves, but the timbre of the bass can prove limiting for all but the most devoted listeners. With that in mind, New York-based James Ilgenfritz gave himself twice the challenge when he went into the studio armed with his bass and a sheaf of compositions by Anthony Braxton. Presumably, it's hard enough to play the composer's music convincingly with an ensemble. Left to your own devices, there's myriad roads to travel.

Ilgenfritz has succeeded in this challenging project. Listeners don't need to be Braxton-philes to enjoy the album either, although I'm sure that helps. The bassist states in the liner notes that during the recordings, he typically had three music stands spread out in front of him, with at least 15 pages of music to draw on for inspiration. As a result, the six tracks typically feature pieces of at least four compositions, Language Music and/or Ghost Trance Material. One track includes a blend of 13 different pieces in the space of 19 minutes. While he moves from section to section, it never sounds like a case of jumping to something else simply because the going gets rough. For the most part, the segues sound planned and natural.

To the nascent Braxton fan, hearing a familiar strain, like the descending/ascending melody of "Composition 40F" acts like a beacon in a sonic fog. And it hangs around just long enough to leave its mark before disappearing into the more recent "Composition 223." This also functions in a manner similar to a Braxton performance, at least the one that occurred in Pittsburgh nearly five years ago, where he frequently wrote numbers on a chalk board and gave them as cues to members of his band. Incidentally, one of those heard that night pops up in the 19-minute epic, the written-through "23C," that appeared on the composer's first Arista album in the 1970s. (A recording of Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway came out on Tzadik this year that also includes "23C.")

While the compositions themselves sound engaging in their own right, Ilgenfritz offers ample proof that his performance skills should be getting more recognition. He tackles the music like a solo bass recitation of Braxton is second nature, and he keeps the energy level high with extended technique that draws some great noises from his instrument. His bowed harmonics never digress into nails-on-the-chalkboard scraping. Instead, they sometimes sound like a great blast of feedback. Elsewhere he gets some hypnotic low droning going. In one track that includes a transcription of the first trumpet cadenza from "Composition 103" (the third candenza shows up in a later track) Ilgenfritz begins with the grace of a cello and goes on to evoke the sound of an air raid siren.

Incidentally, Ilgenfritz chose not to include the visual representations of the compositions, opting instead to go with the numbers. Considering how many pieces he plays and what that would mean in terms of space on the cover, it was a wise decision.


The bassist also plays in a number of different projects including this quartet, referred to as the acronym MiND, with bassist Denman Maroney, alto saxophonist Angelika Niescier and drummer Andrew Drury. Their disc alternates between free improvised tracks attributed to all four, and compositions by Maroney, Niescier and Ilgenfritz.

The first, spare group piece "Ledia House" unfolds gently, giving the impression that the session will lean heavily towards obtuse fragments of sound that bounce off each other as much as it will connect. Bowed scrapings, percussive waves and gentle saxophone trills ebb and flow for three tight minutes. But although the rest of the group pieces favor a spare type of improvisation where understatement is key (rather than going for cathartic blowing) the mood shifts immediately with the next track. Maroney's "One Off or Two" sounds comparatively like a bright, conventional sounding piece even though the pianist doesn't let you feel like you're on solid ground. The two-chord vamp and Niescier's crisp alto are underscored by a rhythm that keeps changing ever so slightly. Just when you think it's a waltzy stride, it shifts a little towards a choppy 4/4 and you wonder if you just heard it wrong initially. Then it feels like it's speeding up. Suffice to say, the title rings true.

Ilgenfritz's compositions feature shifting structures and points of focus. "Social Hypochondria" bounces back and forth between bowed bass and pretty alto and piano voicings. Maroney, who is known for playing "hyperpiano," utilizes some of those effects behind Niescier, bending notes and giving his instrument a more "prepared" percussive sound. "Canter," the bassist's other piece, sounds both beautiful and puzzling, with pregnant pauses from the piano which gets more and more in tune with Drury's unique approach to the drum kit. (He doesn't appear to use sticks for several songs, using instead bows and other items to create vibrations.) Although everyone is moving in parallel lines, it's easy to feel the focus and structure at the core of this music.

Niescier's "Warm Bist du Gekommen?" closes the album with 18 minutes that begin feeling quiet and loose but eventually settle into something that almost straightforward. With the composer virtually taking a backseat to her bandmates until the last five minutes, they almost sound like an exploratory straightahead jazz trio - albeit one on a record that's been a little warped (again, thanks to Maroney's reinvention of his piano's innards.) Not to give the pianist all the glory, but tweaking a mammoth instrument like the piano is no small feat. And it sounds good.

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