While woodwind multi-instrumentalist Tom Christensen has been making his presence known on the New York scene over the past decade, recording with artists including Joe Lovano, David Sanchez, and Toshiko Akiyoshi, he's been slowly, almost insidiously, emerging as a composer of remarkable depth and invention. His latest release, New York School, is one of those very rare recordings that manages to create its own musical universe. It's almost impossible to take this stunning disc out of the player.
Recordings that feature two woodwind players, bass, and percussion are rarely this concerned with overall texture, and Christensen has chosen his partner well in Walt Weiskopf. In addition to tenor and soprano saxophones, both play flute, clarinet, and bass clarinet; Christensen also plays oboe, English horn, and wood flute, so the possibilities are broad indeed. What's interesting about the way Christensen writes is his use of the available instrumental range; while most writers would place the bass clarinet in a supporting role, Christensen uses two of them as primary voices. "In Memory of My Feelings ultimately features Weiskopf soloing on soprano sax, but the score itself is dark and foreboding, in no small part due to the richness of the two bass clarinets, aided and abetted by percussionist Satoshi Takeishi's diverse array of percussion instruments.
Since ending his long run as guitarist Bill Frisell's bassist a decade ago, Kermit Driscoll has been not exactly absent from the scene, but certainly less visible. Driscoll has never been a player to impress with technical demonstrationsrather, his presence is felt as much as heard; his personality manifests itself as the quiet and supportive member of a musical conversation.
With both Weiskopf and Christensen contributing solos that are never anything but direct and to the point, there's nothing here that one could consider excessive. The compositional framework ranges from the ambling and compelling 11/8 groove of "Asleep and Sleeping With Them with Christensen's characteristic penchant for twin lines that snake around each other, occasionally finding their way into brief periods of unison before diverging again into harmonies both broad and closeto the evocative and aptly-titled closer, "Little Elegy, with Christensen on oboe in duet with Takeishi's talking drum.
"Oranges is the most complex work on the disc: twelve miniatures, based on a twelve-tone row, that range from solo to duo to trio to quartet. Throughout, the only thing more compelling than Christensen's writing, which has a kind of contemporary chamber ambience, is the playing from everyone involved, with musical choices that are never less than perfect.
Completely contemporary and cutting edge without the kinds of sharp corners and jagged non sequiturs so often associated with more modernistic improvised music, New York School captivates with a sense of adventure and exploration while remaining completely approachable. For those who find the concept of modern jazz more than a little intimidating, New York School is a perfect entry point.
Personnel: Tom Christensen (tenor and soprano sax, oboe, English horn, clarinet, bass clarinet, alto flute, wood flute), Walt Weiskopf (tenor and soprano sax, flute, clarinet, bass clarinet), Kermit Driscoll (bass), Satoshi Takeishi (percussion)