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Alex Cline Ensemble
The Constant Flame
Cryptogramophone CD CG110, 2001 (72:33)

Jazz moves beyond

Glenn Brooks, 29 September 2002

Before reading this review, scan down and read the list of performers. If you are like me, seeing three vocalists and five readers listed on what would generally be filed as a jazz album may give you pause. My first thought when seeing an album with a cast like that is "Urgh. Yet another highbrow artsy album by some jazzer trying to get serious music creds." The sad fact is that most such albums fall short, although it is hard to fault the artists for trying.

This album is a notable exception. Alex Cline is a percussionist who has been central to the West Coast avant garde jazz and music scene for several years. The first note of The Constant Flame, an echoing bell, let's you know this is not your usual jazz album. In fact, it is hard to put any single label on this rich tapestry. Cline composed all of the pieces, each dedicated to an artist he admires. Of course, there are jazz musicians, like Don Cherry and John Carter, as well as post-jazz vocalist Aina Kemanis, who lends her angelic floating tones to the album. But two decidely non-jazz musicians are also honored, the modern Japanese impressionist Toru Takemitsu and ex-Japan rock experimentalist David Sylvian. And three non-musicians: Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski, Japanese feminist poet Akiko Yosano, and actor (among other things) Will Salmon. This is a wide variety of artists who have in common a fierce independence and determination to go their own individual ways. An album honoring these folks has high standards to reach, and Cline delivers the goods.

The eight pieces are mostly tightly structured, but with areas for improvisation that can get very wild, especially when Vinny Golia takes to the sky on the title tune, dedicated to John Carter. As five of the compositions are inspired by artists who are no longer living, there is something of an elegiac feel to the album, although not always peacefully so. (I am reminded of Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night, ... Rage, rage against the dying of the light.") The album is by turns serene and ferocious, but does not feel like an assemblage of parts but rather a well-woven suite of compositions that work together as a whole. This is a bit surprising since Cline says the album was recorded without prior reheasals or live performances, and that many of the album selections are first takes. One, in fact, was improvised in the studio. The fact that it all works so well together is a credit to Cline's vision and the capable group of musicians.

But what does it sound like? If I seem to be tip-toeing around that, it is for good reason. This is a hard album to relate to conventional categories and sounds. Here's a stab at it. First, there is no doubt throughout that Cline is a percussionist; this is a sound- and rhythm-driven album. Although there are strong melodies, the soundscape is not just the three usual layers of melody, harmony, and rhythm, but deeper, with many layers of sound from forward to back and top to bottom. This is not a pop music post-production, studio-created effect, though, but a clear representation of what the musicians sounded like in the studio. (This is, by the way, a very fine recording.) In this way, it is more like modern classical music for a small chamber ensemble than jazz. The multiple keyboards (synthesizers, harmonium, piano, B-3 organ), when combined with ethnic instruments and floating vocals, reflect the tools of pop-new-age musicians like Enya. When, instead, they mix with heavy percussion and guitars, jazz fusion is the reference point. But the results here are many times more complex and interesting. Cline is like a master chef demonstrating that he can work miracles with mundane ingredients.

Other key ingredients in this musical stew are Jeff Gauthier's electric and acoustic violins, electric guitar from Alex's brother Nels Cline, and a percussion group lead by producer Peter Erskine (no slouch drummer in his own right). And someone - guitarist G. E. Stinson? - contributes effective overtone singing, Tibetan-style, to "Evening Bell."

The lyrics draw from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Japanese poetry by Akiko Yosano (on the piece dedicated to her) and Shotetsu, a Christian benediction, and, on "Bridge," a poem that I assume is by Cline. Kemanis's beautiful voice and Gauthier's violin often float above one or two instruments, or a churning mix, with very deep charges often energizing the whole. Even in the spacier moments, such as the gorgeous "Evening Bell," there is ample energy to drive the compositions forward, and the rambunctious passages are as exhilirating as a ride through whitewater rapids. There are moments of great beauty and serenity, but this is not background music. It is instead an experience, and one I strongly encourage you to seek out.

The Alex Cline Ensemble
Aina Kemanis, voice; Jef Gautheir, violins; Wayne Peet, keyboards; G. E. Stinson, electric guitars, mbira, autoharp, voice; Michael Elizondo, bass, Taurus bass pedals; Alex Cline, percussion, kantele, autoharp, synthesizer
Guest musicians
Vinny Golia, soprano saxophone; Nels Cline, electric guitar; Kaoru, voice; Brad Dutz, congas, djembe; Dan Morris, mridangam; Christopher Garcia, mbwata; Peter Erskine, snare drum
Takako Uemura; Mutsy Erskine; Satoko Otsumura; Harumi Makino Smith; Noriko Peet

production  Produced by Peter Erskine. Recorded, mixed, and mastered by Rich Breen.

songs  Paramita (to the memory fo Don Cherry) · Evening Bell (to the memory of Toru Takemitsu) · The Constant Flame (to the memory of John Carter) · A Wreath of Rain (to the memory of Krzysztof Kielowski) · Bridge (for David Sylvian) · Summoning Spirits (for Will Salmon) · Six Poems by Akiko Yosano (to her memory) · Benediction (for Aina)

of related interest  
I understand this is half of a pair of albums Cline recorded as tributes to artists he admires. The other is Sparks Fly Upward (Cryptogramophone CD CG102, 1999), which is worthy of investigation. I have not heard it.

Cline was a member of the fine L. A. jazz group Quarter Music, along with Gauthier, Nels Cline and the late bass player and composer Eric von Essen. Cryptogramophone has released a fine series of tribute albums - The Music of Eric von Essen, volumes 1-3 - featuring von Essen's compositions played by musicians who worked with him. These are all well worth a listen.

Copyright © 2002 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.