It's hard to look at Arcanum Moderne without reference to the massive heap of recordings this particular trio has piled up over the years, which is both a good and bad thing, of course. There's something about the odd chemistry among Ellery Eskelin, Andrea Parkins, and Jim Black which has fueled endless live performance and ceaseless recorded unrest.
All three players subscribe to the school of purposeful unpredictability, sometimes setting up stark clashes that grab attention and other times falling neatly into uncanny grooves from out of nowhere. But make no mistake: these events, as with most of the rest of what you hear from this group, are not at all random. And when the trio stretches out in between, it's open ground.
Arcanum Moderne juxtaposes tenor saxophonist Ellery Eskelin's obsession with timbral color alongside a fabric of improvisation that moves from unison/harmonized melodies toward free playing and back. Check out his breathing, fluttering, floating introduction to "Half A Chance," rich with thick overtones and polychromatic hues. Andrea Parkins enters on sampler then piano and accordion, and Jim Black rides the rhythmic tension between stasis and a halting rush. The denouement comes in the form of a stately organ procession toward the end of the piece.
The first track, "It's A Samba" (yes, in its own oblique way) takes advantage of Black's crisp and unpredictable drumming, stretching out over 13 minutes to allow each player to go beyond the appetizers through a full course meal. (Each one of these tunes is expansive, most ten minutes or longer.)
But it's moments like the transition two minutes into "For No Good Reason," where a no-holds-barred improv briefly coalesces into a groove, that you really understand what Eskelin is up to here. It's the contrast between breath and punch, intimacy and distance, past history and modern future, channel and ocean that fuels this excursion into outer sound. Make no mistake, though: Ellery Eskelin is no screamer. As his liner notes point out quite open-mindedly, "there's a lot of ways to improvise and my way is no better than anybody else's." This music is quite active about its expansion and message.
Eskelin's route is most assuredly unlike the rest, which makes it a rare opportunity to glimpse into the spirit of three players who have spent the time and made the effort to join forces for a purpose. Listeners who have followed this group's ongoing course will find that Arcanum Moderne ranks up there with the best of a superlative series of recordings.
Visit Ellery Eskelin and Hatology on the web.
Personnel: Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone; Jim Black: drums, percussion; Andrea Parkins: accordion, piano,