SHAPE OF TWELVE consists of 8 compositions by saxophonist Lotte Anker (who, along with trombonist Ture Larsen, is one of the artistic directors of the Copenhagen Art Ensemble). The works were composed during 1988-1997 and are mostly of medium length (five tracks clock in between 6 and 7 minutes).
The Copenhagen Art Ensemble is described in the liner notes as a “’jazz sinfonietta’ – that is, a group of about a dozen musicians combining the complexity of the traditional big band with the mobility of the small combo.” (Jakob Levinsen) This is a very accurate assessment of the music on this disc and is a capsule review in itself. The instrumentation of the Copenhagen Art Ensemble is essentially 3 trumpets, 4 saxophones, 3 trombones, piano (acoustic and electric), acoustic bass, and drums (with the winds players doubling on flugelhorn, clarinet, flute, and tuba).
The opening track, “Descension”, proves to be the longest (12 min 29 sec) on the disc. This piece begins with what is presumably a conducted improvisation. Tension gradually builds as melodic lines, hesitantly then confidently, emerge from the introductory swell of percussion. This tension is sustained but with a temporary suspension of momentum, until the band transitions from a briefly chaotic statement to the main section of the piece. Here, the piano skillfully punctuates a renewed melodic articulation from the winds, the whole underlined by an insistent pulse, strongly reminiscent of “In A Silent Way”-era Miles Davis. The listener is carried along helplessly downward (this is a descent after all) as the collective energy continues, impossibly, to accumulate. A release finally occurs in another brief chaotic interlude with a ring-modulated (?) piano rising from the density of the mix and the piece concludes in relative calm, but with little sense of lessened anxiety. Anker states that “Descension” with its “merging of free music and large scale form...is most representative of her present priorities as a composer.” In that case, this listener respectfully requests more pieces that embody these priorities.
The second track, “Shape Of Twelve”, is firmly rooted in more traditional jazz styling but is no less complex or dynamic. Here, the imagination of Anker fully exploits the versatility of the CAE as well as putting their virtuosity to the test. The band members nimbly interact, ably exploring every angle of the evolving themes, giving them depth and velocity, nearly rendering them as three-dimensional objects tumbling through space.
“Naked”, the third track, dissipates the high energy level. Muted trumpets, piano, and an evocative solo by Anker provide a placid landscape, ideal for drifting and daydreaming.
The proceedings shift gear abruptly with the fourth track, the aptly titled “Direction Switch.” This composition is the most recent and was written specifically for this recording. The full-blown intensity of this piece compensates for it’s being the shortest track (3 min 39 sec) on the disc. A brash recurring motif is sharply contrasted by brief improvisational interludes that yield the opportunity for each band member to solo. The growling electric piano and relentless percussion again evoke Miles, whereas the fleet, spirited horns are solidly within the downtown NYC mode (Dr. Nerve anyone?).
“Icebird Song” which follows “Direction Switch” provides more introspective fare and features vocalist Mona Larsen. The track begins tranquilly but unfurls boldly, as confidence emerges from contemplation. Guest percussionist Marilyn Mazur adds critical and emphatic drama to this piece without being obtrusive.
“Funeral Procession” is in many ways the most difficult piece to “get” but may ultimately be the most rewarding and fascinating on the disc. Despite the dark, haunting tone, there lurks a barely repressed, somewhat paradoxical, nearly triumphant glee. The ambiguity of this piece sparks profound visual imagery in this listener (Perhaps the tyrannical dictator of a small third world country has died. The oppressed people would like to openly rejoice but the incumbent police state is still watching so they must subtly display their emotions. Or alternatively, in that same oppressed state, a revolutionary leader has been assassinated and martyred. The people, newly inspired to seek revenge and justice, now know that the successful overthrow of the oppressor is not only inevitable but also imminent).
A sense of levity and lightheartedness is restored with the enigmatic “More Streetprayers”. The band is obviously having fun with this loose piece that possesses a funky rock-like aroma. The composition is crowned by what many will perceive as a nearly lunatic rant since a text about “having time” is recited by writer T.S. Hoeg. Listening to this track is a strange but pleasant experience.
If “More Streetprayers” is the climax, then the final track, “Song For Tomas” is the denouement. This is the only piece not to be performed by the entire CAE, limited instead to a trio of saxophone (Anker), bass (Nils Davidsen), and piano (Thomas Clausen). The piece is quiet and meditative but not fragile. A trio recording by Anker/Davidsen/Clausen would be highly welcomed by this listener. “Song For Tomas” closes with a backwards tape fragment of “Descension” providing a deliciously surreal conclusion.
In summary, SHAPE OF TWELVE makes for a well paced listening experience. An abundance of ideas are stated succinctly and intelligently. Several listens maybe required in order to fully capture the creative nuances embedded in both compositions and performance. RECOMMENDED for the following audience segments: to the avant-garde jazz fan who needs a melodic break from the bubbles and squeaks; to the traditional jazz fan who wants to have his or her ears stretched; to the classical and progressive rock fans who think that jazz can’t be complex and/or composed.
Copenhagen Art Ensemble: Jasper Riis, Jens Godtholdt, Kasper Tranberg (trumpet, flugelhorn); Peter Fuglsang (alto sax, clarinet, alto clarinet); Lotte Anker (tenor and soprano saxophones, compositions); Thomas Agergaard (tenor sax, flute); Pelle Fridell (baritone sax, bass clarinet); Ture Larsen (trombone); Klaus Lohrer (bass trombone, tuba); Thomas Clausen (piano, Fender Rhodes); Nils Davidsen (acoustic bass); Anders Mogensen (drums)
guest: Marilyn Mazur (percussion on “Descension”, “Direction Switch”, “Icebird Song”, “More Streetprayers”)