Eastern Boundry Quartet: Icicles (2011)
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Bassist/composer Joe Fonda continues to enjoy a most eclectic career. Whether in collaboration with saxophonist Anthony Braxton, or leading an international group comprised of musicians from Europe and China, Fonda is never far from the bleeding edge of creative improvisation. In its second outing, the Eastern Boundary Quartet continues to connect musical worlds and styles. Frequent colleague Michael Jefry Stevens (piano), and two exceedingly skilled Hungarians, Balazs Bagyi (drums) and Mihaly Borbely (saxophones), are onboard with Fonda, with Borbely's tarogato (a Hungarian woodwind) adding much of the ethnic color to this collection. Though not without its free aspects, Icicles is one of the most accessible and creative collections in Fonda's discology.
Fonda's "Fish Soup" opens the set and is its most overtly free piece, beginning with a brief rhythmic duet between the bassist and Bagyi. Borbely and Stevens enter, pushing the pace up to a near-feverish level, before each player gets some upfront time. Fonda shines in his two-minute solo, slowing the tempo and segueing nicely into the title track. The ten-minute, down-tempo title track features some beautiful work from Stevens, augmented soulfully by Borbely. "Soft Balkan Wind" follows and is the first piece to be distinctly flavored by Eastern Europe's traditional sound, yet still incorporating free improvisation before it closes. Similarly, "Borders" begins with ethnic influences out in front, before becoming something of a free jazz clinic, slightly dissonant but pleasing as well.
The remaining three compositions are more focused on harmony, though they are intricate in structure. "China" has stylistic elements of its namesake culture, and Stevens creates a mysterious, elegiac atmosphere that recalls pianist Keith Jarrett's "A Pagan Hymn," from In the Light (ECM, 1974). A cover of Hungarian-born guitarist Attila Zoller's "Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody" is another exceptional example of the successful merging of influences, ending with Borbely's Romani-like flair. The mid-tempo closer, "Transylvania Blue," is the collection's most straight-out melodic piece; despite being a Borbely composition, Fonda and Stevens make it theirs, each demonstrating a controlled intensity that simmers just below the surface.
Cross-cultural referencing is certainly not new to jazz, but, nevertheless, each expedition represents a journey into uncharted terrain. Simply incorporating native instruments can be an obvious placeholder, but often serves as only a token of thematic intention. Combined with the premise of improvisation, the integration of ethnic or folkloric themes can be a more thorny issue, as it's easier to lose the thread in the complex goings-on. Icicles represents a brilliant foray into a unique area. The compositions, with the exception of the Zoller piece, are all written by group members, and are open and adventurousjust what would be hoped forin a musical travelogue containing some of these musicians' finest playing.
Track Listing: Fish Soup; Icicles; Soft Balkan Wind; Borders; China; Hungarian Jazz Rhapsody; Transylvania Blues.
Personnel: Joe Fonda, bass; Michael Jefry Stevens, piano; Balazs Bagyi, drums; Mihaly Borbely, saxophones, tarogato.
Record Label: Konnex Records