First of all this packaging is about twice the size of a normal CD package. It is lovingly designed by Jason Das and visually suggests a sort of nostalgia for innocence, for childhood perhaps. The performers are all of that “New York Downtown”/modern music background and this is a set of rigorously trained musicians. Put them together as a sextet and tap their virtuosity as well as their improvisational abilities and some clever programming and you get this album.
It is an unusual but ultimately very satisfying album. It starts with (of all things) a transcription of music by the late Hungarian master Gyorgy Ligeti, his Pasacaglia Ungherese (1978) which is originally for harpsichord. This is hardly a “jazz” piece and one wonders at the choice of this particular work to be the one to make that all important first impression. The transcription (by Ken Thomson) is quite effective however and very entertaining. I’m not sure why the it was chosen but it works well here.
This leaves us with the remaining six tracks (all composed by Ken Thomson) which are more clearly in the realm of “jazz” the way most listeners are accustomed to hearing it. Drums keeping the beat, a recognizable bass line, and improvisational solos over the harmonic progression. These virtuosos are given a challenge by said composer and the solos which populate these tracks are one of the best things about this release. Clearly these musicians are comfortable with their virtuosity and they seem to understand jazz. They got and held this listener’s attention most immediately.
The Ken Thomson Sextet consists of Ken Thomson, composer and alto saxophone; Anna Webber, tenor saxophone; Russ Johnson, trumpet; Alan Ferber, trombone; Adam Armstrong, bass; and Daniel Dor, drums. Clearly all these folks have a thorough knowledge of jazz performance and can take their audience on a mighty exciting ride. The solos will stick in your head long after the initial thrill of your first hearing and this is a nicely balanced group functioning almost as a single entity. Very cool.
Ken Thomson is one of the rapidly rising stars of the New York music scene and beyond. His involvement with his group Slow/Fast which includes Ken Thomson, Russ Johnson, Nir Felder, Adam Armstrong and Fred Kennedy as well as Bang on a Can and others in the new music/new jazz community demonstrates his level of drive. Thomson is a saxophone player and a composer.
The present album showcases his talents as a composer and are different than what I had expected from a musician with roots in free jazz and with saxophone as his principal instrument. This is a set of two suites in the classical manner, a collection of movements. They do not appear to have any direct influence from jazz but rather they are quite clearly in a classical new music vein.
The first, Restless (2014) is a four movement piece for cello and piano. It could have been called a sonata for all its complexity and development. It is a lyrical and very listenable piece which is restless at times (though I think the title actually suggests multiple meanings) and loaded with fascinating musical ideas. The writing for both the cello and the piano are apparently technically challenging but both are handled very well by Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Karl Larson (piano). This disc is worth the price if only for the fantastic musicianship of these performers.
Ashley Bathgate (cellist) and Karl Larson (pianist) (Photo by Gabriel Gomez, all rights reserved)
The three movement suite, Me vs. (2012) is a pianistic tour de force that makes great use of various pianistic effects involving judicious use of the sustain pedal and the creation of after image type effects which allow the harmonics to vibrate on strings not struck by the keys. Again the nod to a basic three movement classical piano sonata with a complex first movement followed by a lyrical slow movement and a spritely virtuosic finale which resembles a moto perpetuo.
More about the internal dialogue that went on in the composer’s head is available in his commentary but this music doesn’t really require much explanation. It is pretty clear and very effective music. This is simply a wonderful recording of some fascinating new music.