Even in its quieter moments, Steuart Liebig's new ensemble effort, Pomegranate,
projects a sense of excitement. Sometimes it's the spark of discovery, other times it's the joy of companionship, and often (not to be underrated) it's the unexpected pleasure of getting lost and then finding the way back home.
On Pomegranate Liebig's tunes travel along a route consisting of city streets, back roads, and barely marked trails through the woods... and in the end, the path itself bears just as much interest as the destination. The composer's approach on this record emphasizes the intimate juxtaposition of formally arranged structures and head-long group improvisation. Certain phrases emerge as pure chamber music: each note comes from a staff on the sheet music (the city streets). But these blocks of protected harmony and color blend together with less-obvious musical forms where certain textural or tonal constraints frame a given player's explorations in-the-moment (the back roads). And at times these tunes just break free, allowing several players to pursue an intimate conversation without fixed rules or a predetermined endpoint (the trails). The stark contrast in many of these tunes comes from moments when a backwoods trail suddenly hits main street, or when a seemingly straight-ahead road smacks right into the jungle.
All this talk about composition understates the vital interactive roles of the eight members in this particular improvising group. The octet on this record consists of seven members in a core ensemble, offering a loose framework for four additional guest members to lend individual personality and contrast. While each of the seven core players gets plenty of opportunity to stretch out, the eighth voice really influences the flavor of each of these tunes. French horn player Tom Varner's contribution to "Widening Circles," for example, is a kaleidoscopic spectrum of color and texture. On the other hand, "The Dark," which centers around Nels Cline's explosive guitar work, has more of a punchy, angular feel.
Pomegranate is by no means an obvious record. It takes some time to dig into and truly appreciate. And be warned: the broad range of colors and textures here certainly never shy from extremes. But for listeners curious about fresh ideas of jazz compositionand for those open to complex larger-ensemble soundsthis disc offers many fascinating layers of depth.
Personnel: Ellen Burr: flute, alto flute, and piccolo; Eric Barber: B flat clarinet; John Fumo: trumpet and flugelhorn; Scot Ray: trombone; Jeff Gauthier: 4 and 5-string electric violins; Alex Cline: drums and percussion; Steuart Liebig: C, B flat, and E flat contrabassguitars. Plus Tom Varner: french horn (1); Mark Dresser: contrabass and giffus (2); Vinny Golia: sopranino saxophone (3); Nels Cline: electric guitar (4).