As relatively unusual as it is to hear the violin in a jazz context, the viola is an even more unlikely improvising instrument. And yet, classical masters like Kim Kashkashian have brought its rich texture to bear on albums including Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek's latest, In Praise of Dreams
, where the viola's inherent warmth contrasted Garbarek's icy tone. Violist Tanya Kalmanovitch, who first emerged on the scene with her '02 debut, Hut Five
, may have classical training, but when left to her own devices with her quartet, she is far more informed by the improvisational looseness of Ornette Coleman and the new music freedom of Mark Feldman, combined with a certain fusion energy.
According to Kalmanovitch, the five spontaneous group improvisations recorded for her debut disc were a highlight of that session. And so, with one day in the studio, the groupfeaturing Boston-based guitarist Rick Peckham, Irish bassist Ronan Guilfoyle, and drummer Owen Howard, like Kalmanovitch a Canadian relocated to New Yorkconvened in the middle of a 2003 tour of Canadian festivals with an eye to recreating the same kind of magic. The result, Out Where the Trains Don't Run , is as remarkable for its sense of compositional focus as it is for its reckless abandon, a perfect confluence of specific intent and wider speculation.
There are precious few premises. On these sixteen miniatures, band members take turns at starting a take, occasionally providing but the barest of directions"calypso,"? "country,"? or "plucky"?and spontaneously agreeing upon only the ending. In the process Kalmanovitch and the quartet cover a lot of stylistic ground. "Rick's Got Something"? is a funky piece of fusion, starting with Peckham's compelling riff, but it opens up soon enough with the kind of "everyone solos and nobody solos"? approach of Bill Frisell's more Americana-leaning work. Guilfoyle's acoustic bass guitar forms dark Steve Swallow-like chords to establish the basis of "Soft T,"? with Kalmanovitch providing more obscure counterpoint. "Promosexual"? and "You Could Be Loved in Canada"? are more overtly free pieces, while "You Never Know"? approaches tenderness with its faux-Latin rhythm, yet remains harmonically outré.
The magic comes from the fact that virtually any precept put forward is quickly picked up and turned into something with its own compositional focus. Every member of the quartet is deeply intuitive, able to latch onto the smallest of conceits and turn it into something greater. The bright calypso of "Hairletters and Hipswingers"? feels completely planned, as does the more languid "Billet-Doux,"? where Peckham and Guilfoyle enter together, already remarkably in synch. And while the instrumental prowess of these four artists is never in question, it's their ego-less pursuit of a larger collective whole that gives Out Where The Trains Don't Run its character.
Retaining consistent personnel is always a challenge, but based on the clear chemistry of Out Where the Trains Don't Run , one hopes that Kalmanovitch can at least periodically reconvene this group for future projects.
Visit Tanya Kalmanovitch on the web.
Personnel: Tanya Kalmanovitch (viola, violin), Rick Peckham (guitar), Ronan Guilfoyle (acoustic bass guitar), Owen