Modern Surfaces comes to us with a certain amount of pedigree, as their guitarist is Geoff Young of Barry Romberg's very notable over-there-somewhere jam band, Random Access (reviewed by yours truly in the June 2005 Jazz Now and favorably, I might add).
Recorded and produced in Ontario (by Romberg), we begin "Outward Bound" with a lengthy bowed largo intro from Jim Vivian that draws us into a sound world parallel to, say, later Roscoe Mitchell's, and once Wynston kicks in with no small authority Young and saxophonist Mike Murley enter as well.
I like the spacing of the instruments here more than the music itself, but the writing and performance are not weak in any way. It's a sort of rotating shattered Y arrangement: Wynston occupies, amoebalike, the center of the tone field, Vivian bubbles and cooks beneath him in the mix, and the two melodic instruments splutter (Murley) and float (Young) around them.
Murley tests his tenor's capabilities sparingly with scraped pedal points of a kind, while Young prefers to let bowedlike chords drift across the improvising. Very strange. In but not in. Out but not out.
There was some sort of presagement to this on Random Access 3 (see the June issue): one track, "Serenity Now," (Is Romberg a Seinfeld fan? No, I asked that one before) had Young radiating clouds of notes from the center of the piece, fitting willy-nilly through barlike clicks of synthesized marimba.
It was a bit like we've heard British guitarist Brian Godding do in his band Mirage (this was in the seventies, sorry to say) or with the Mike Westbrook Orchestra. Again, very strange. To quote Danny DeVito in Taxi, "But memorable!"
Young's "I Think This Party's Over" is a strangled Eliot Sharp-like blues that opens and closes with a distant if approaching gale of industrial noise. Murley and Wynston flurry at the edges of this massive tube train of sound, Vivan slipping in-under with slow-picked, dreamy figures, and Wynston's double downbeat sort-of coalesces the actual tune. But only sort of. It's a nervous sort of detente that the musicians here have worked out, and the not-exactly-nailed-down air of the music makes it singular.
Anyone who reads too many of my reviews (you'll decide how many or few that is) usually notes that I moan comically how bassists are usually undermiked. Not so here, and Vivian's dark, Schnittke-like tone does the continuum many good turns. One such is his atmospheric picking during the slow antibossa section of "Surf Aces," under Young's neutral-drive Jazz-club phrases and Murley's relatively peaceful alto. Love that head melody, kind of Monk-meets-Laurindo-Almeida.
I also go for this group's sense of time. "Existential Departures" runs over eleven minutes, and here it's Vivian and Wynston's turn to hover at the edges; Murley and Young (on acoustic guitar) do long, twinned, serpentine phrases à la Terje Rypdal's 1980s ECM releases (especially Descendre). Beautifully odd. Again, in but not in, out but not out. Not clinically so, either, not like, say, Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht.
The closing ditty "New One" also has a tentative air, thanks to Wynston's commenting melodically as much as anyone else on the wintry central chorale trotted out by the remainder of the band.
We go on: Wynston's "Spiral Nebula" features Stich waxing spikier and spikier on the piano; it's affecting but it's either too busy or not busy enough. Something is not working in this track that prevents the idea from blooming.
But there's lots more good stuff up ahead, like Young and Murley holding "Evanescence" together while Wynston and Vivian wig out around them; or Wynston's hail of dropped baseballs detonating all around and through "Caboose"; or the piano ostinato that gives one something to hang onto for dear life as Young's ballooning sustained synclavier notes strain to contain multitudes.
Here it's Vivian, Murley, and Wynston who overlap, converse, and talk past one another in a hunt for common ground of the sort you'd see in a Joe McElroy novel. Missed connections, indeed. But memorable.
It's all really good, really weird stuff that shows the quartet form isn't dead just yet. Care must always be taken in the finding or re-exploring of new or familiar ground, but this CD shows that the ragged space between in and out also has a few more secrets to cough up.
by Ken Egbert
Copyright Jazz Now, September 2005, all rights reserved.
Jazz Now Interactive September 2005 Vol 15 No. 5 - Table of Contents