The delineation between ECM's regular series and New Series has always been relatively clearimprovised music with the regular series, composed music on the New Series. Still, there's an increasingly substantial gray area, occupying a fuzzy space between the two.
Reedman Roscoe Mitchell's outstanding Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1, 2 & 3 (ECM, 2007) occupied that gray area, investigating the nexus where contemporary classical music and exploratory improvisation meet. Calling on the same expanded 14-piece Transatlantic Art Ensemble that Mitchell and British saxophonist Evan Parker co-created for Composition/Improvisation by cherry-picking their favorite musicians, Boustrophedon is the logical successor to Mitchell's disc, featuring Parker's sixty-minute, eight-part "Boustrophedon" suite.
Both discs share much, while occupying distinct places along the scored improvisation continuum. The detailed compositional aspect of Boustrophedon represents an anomaly in Parker's large discography. It's a complex piece that fully utilizes the Ensemblein small subsets and in totowith plenty of space for improvisation that, while directed to varying degrees, remains open-ended in spirit.
Boustrophedon is structured to introduce each member of the group to his transatlantic counterpart, in contexts ranging from dark and spare to turbulent and near-anarchistic, despite an ever-present underlying premise.
Even during its most powerful moments, Boustrophedon possesses a definedalbeit sometimes sketchyroadmap. "Furrow 6" begins with a stunning soprano solo by Parker, with his signature circular breathing over an increasingly roiling foundation that is dominated by the five string players, creating a semi-chaotic but strangely trance-like ambience. When Mitchell takes over, with a visceral alto solo over a more defined rhythm, the energy ratchets up; pianist Craig Taborn's quirkily repetitive line acts as the thematic link between the two saxophonists. Percussionists Tani Tabbal and Paul Lytton work exceptionally well together, blending raw texture and relentless rhythm that dissolves into a dynamic free exchange between the two, ultimately cueing the ensemble to a scored ending.
There's no shortage of exceptional work all-around, but Taborn stands out as a ubiquitous playercomfortable and encyclopedically knowledgeable in any setting. His work on "Furrow 1," which provides a vehicle for the pianist and flautist Neil Metcalfe after the brief but context-setting "Overture," is nothing short of remarkable. Abstruse yet lyrical in its own way, Taborn works in this unconventional context to develop a solo that works as a self-contained entity, but also provides a vinculum between Metcalfe's ethereal segment and the composition's equally empyreal segue into "Furrow 2," a feature for violinist Philipp Wachsmann and violist Nils Bultmann.
Much of Boustrophedon may sound otherworldly, with references to Stravinsky's dramatic power and Ligeti's dissonant abstraction blending with improvised music's inherent spontaneity. Like Composition/Improvisation, it's not a suite for the faint-at-heart or the stylistic purist. Instead, Boustrophedon challenges preconception and represents a high watermark for Parker, an artist best known for untarnished extemporization, who here reveals an even broader view than ever before. Like Mitchell's Composition/Improvisation, Boustrophedon is a masterpiece, suggesting how the rich palette of the Transatlantic Art Ensemble allows its composers to freely explore without any stylistic constraints.