Frieze of Life

Nuclear Frog Pond

FOL Records, USA

Took me a minute to figure out if this band was called Nuclear Frog Pond or Frieze of Life, but that's just a lazy critic talking. Once I figured that out, the rest was easy.

Frieze of Life (Brian Vannoy, percussion; Geoff Harper, bass; Jay Rouston, trumpets; Chris Stover, trombone; Mark Taylor, saxophones; Greg Sinibaldi, tenor sax and bass clarinet) has some of that lugubrious charm we hear from William Parker's Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra (I admit, a much bigger group).

Unison lines often have a smear effect, as if you are hearing them play an arrangement in slow motion. See "Moose Knuckles" (a Canadian delicacy?), for an example. I've heard a lot of critics say this effect smacks of under-rehearsing, but I think the punchy big-band charts of the sort we recall being turned out by the dozens in the day of Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers are long, long out of here. It's been years since such variables as attack, decay, and different tonal spacing of instrumental voices within a whole were admitted into the creative vocabulary. Nice to hear a smaller group try it!

Other witty details. This sextet may not have enough personnel to be called a chamber group, but they don't allow that to get in their way. I find it hard to believe that the highly mathematical scoring for horns in the cut entitled "Desire" is not overdubbed, but I have a feeling it isn't. One small group of horns does a blisteringly complex staccato run of notes, while the other subgroup drifts pitch-shifting tonal horizons (as opposed to tonal centers?) past and through them.

This'll get the cobwebs out of your head. Compliments to Vannoy and Harper for keeping everybody baled together without using chicken wire. "A Preliminary Account" has a soundworld vaguely parallel to Anthony Braxton territory. Anybody recall his 1978 whazzit for four orchestras? This could have been an outtake but for Vannoy's literate if highly subjective drum patterns preventing everyone else from heading over the rim of the observable universe. The focus slowly tightens towards the end of the composition but complete pre-twentieth-century coherence is never entirely found or, thankfully, sought. Very neat.

Wisely, FOL have gone this experimental route via traveled paths. Not too traveled, but just enough. Two Bartok compositions, "Dialogue" and "Melodia na Neblina," both arranged by Sinibaldi, point out something I didn't hear at first in the music.

There is a certain classical-sounding if very idiomatic thought process here directing such tracks as "Consolation," "Yo, Han!," or "Code Name 6."

If you want the shrieking intensity of a revival meeting, look elsewhere. Good stuff, and nobody's shucking. Try it.

By Ken Egbert