William Susman’s Scatter My Ashes


susmanscatter

I first encountered the composer William Susman (1960- ) when one of his works appeared on a program which included a solo cello and electronics piece by Vivian Fung.  This solo electroacoustic piece, the work I was initially asked to review, was nestled in the middle of an interesting program by the San Jose Chamber Orchestra.  I chose to review the entire concert which was a fascinating selection of new music.  William Susman’s “In a State of Patterns” (2018) struck me immediately as interesting post-minimalist work.

Susman_at_piano

Mr. Susman read my review and rather promptly sent me this 2014 CD on his Belarca label.  It contains four of his works from 1992-2010 and is a fine sampling of his work.  All works are here performed by the Octet Ensemble which includes: Alan Ferber, trombone; Mike Gurfield, trumpet; Melissa Hughes, vocals; Elaine Kwon, piano; Eleonore Oppenheim, double bass; Demetrius Spaneas, saxophone; Greg Zuber, drums and percussion; and William Susman, electric piano.

There are four pieces on 12 tracks.  The disc begins with Camille (2010), a very listenable post-minimal chamber work.  It is followed by a melancholy song cycle, Scatter My Ashes (2009) on poems by the composer’s sister Sue Susman.

The third piece is a wonderful piano concerto.  There are not a lot of convincing concertos in the minimalist genre but this one is a candidate for being a poster child.  It is for piano with chamber ensemble.  Here the composer goes not for the finger busting virtuosity that seems to be the current vogue but rather he evokes a latter day Mozart with more technically modest but highly entertaining music that communicates directly.  Curiously (is this a carry over from the Steve Reich and/or The Philip Glass Ensemble?) he uses a wordless vocal (Hughes) as a part of the instrumental texture.  Elaine Kwon handles the featured keyboard part.  It works very well.

He ends with an arrangement for OCTET of Moving in to an Empty Space (1992, arr 2010), another setting of his sister’s lovely poetry.  Again he evokes the somber but it is more in the nature of exorcising the demons of sadness much like the mission of the poet.

 

Ken Thomson’s Amazing “Sextet”


 

thomsonsextet

Panoramic Recordings

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.

This is chamber jazz at its finest.