Monday, April 08, 2019

CD Review: Anna Webber - Clockwise

Anna Webber

Anna Webber came to Pittsburgh last fall with bassist Adam Hopkins' Crickets band, in which her tenor acted as one-third of a saxophone section that added to the free jazz-cum-indie rock style of the music. But that set offered no indication of what appears on Clockwise, Webber's tenth album under her own name.

These compositions were inspired by percussion works of 20th-century composers, among them Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Edgard Varése and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Rather than appropriating their music, she extracted ideas from them, often creating works that begin with rigid, almost minimal movement. They're executed by a septet that moves beyond the percussive foundation of the work, while frequently maintaining a stark, unsettling quality to the writing.

Things get off to an unsettling start with a literal clockwise grouping of instruments in "Korē II." Cello (Christopher Hoffman), bass (Chris Tordini) and Webber's tenor overtone honk create a rhythmic cycle that skips every so often. Gradually Matt Mitchell (piano), Jeremy Viner (clarinet), Jacob Garchik (trombone) and Ches Smith (drums) flesh things out by cutting in with another segment, making it sound like the whole thing was created through editing and looping. It wasn't, as indicated by some added clarinet and cello noise, and Smith's fills. Like its bookend, "Korē I" the addition of these slight embellishments (in "I" they come when Tordini adds some passing tones) keep things from sounding stiff.

But the jerkiness of "Korē II" is no preparation for the abrasive blend of Webber and Viner's tenors that continue for the first two minutes of "Idiom II." When they finally break and Hoffman moves into a solo, it almost sounds like he's apologizing for the horns' imitation of whiny children.

Beyond that, Clockwise features a pretty compelling blend of adventurous writing and playing. It might be the instrumentation but Webber's writing sometimes evokes thoughts of Henry Threadgill. The movement of the music might not be apparent but the players move with clear direction. A piece like "Array" goes into different sections and where it lands comes as a complete surprise, one that begs for further examination.

Webber only gives herself one opportunity to show off her tenor skills, in  the 1:39 "Hologram Best." Much of the time she plays flute, alto flute or bass flute, contributing layers to this intriguing music instead of acting as an improviser. Viner takes the tenor solo in "Loper" a piece that builds up slowly for ten minutes, following the opening blast in "King of Denmark I." The other two "King" tracks on the album are short improvisations by Smith and Tordini respectively which Webber edited and reconstructed.

The methods Webber used on Clockwise - transferring percussive ideas to melodic instruments, emphasizing timbre - aren't explained in liner notes. Without any road map, listeners might be left scratching their heads at the music. Like the composers from which took inspiration, this set comes off more like contemporary new music rather than jazz. Improvisation factors into it, but often it sounds more like something pre-composed but played with a spontaneous feeling. At the same time, much of requires repeated examination and, for the most part, the music inspires that feeling - as well as a desire to hear the 10 albums that Webber released prior to Clockwise.

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