The integration of orchestration and improvisation can take many forms. In the case of woodwind multi-instrumentalist Tim Garland's The Mystery (Audio-b, 2007), it's about clearly delineated form, with soloists working within defined structures. For bassist Miroslav Vitous the process is more complex. Universal Syncopations II expands on the premise of Universal Syncopations (ECM, 2003), integrating real-time ensemble interaction with separately recorded orchestration.
Extensive post-production editing provides Vitous the flexibility to create compositions that are like stylistic collages while managing to feel remarkably spontaneous. That the Czech bassist was a founding member of 1970s fusion group Weather Report will come as no surprise when one considers how, like some of that group's best early incarnation material, Universal Syncopations II takes form and freedom, puts it in a blender, and creates something so distinctive that reference points are nearly impossible to find. Free passages are joined with detailed constructs; small ensembles ranging from trio to quintet, drive or are driven by symphonic and choral arrangements that bring new meaning to the concept of Third Stream.
Vitous hasn't brought back the star power of Universal Syncopations, but there are some familiar names. Drummer Adam Nussbaum is incredibly flexible on "Opera," which shifts meters and feels more times in eleven minutes than most albums do in their entirety. From fiery swing to visceral funk, Nussbaumwho only appears on this one tracknavigates Vitous' complex, shifting chart effortlessly. Alongside Vitous, he creates a challenging context for separate and collective soloing from trumpeter Randy Brecker and saxophonists Bob Mintzer and Gary Campbell, all making their ECM debut. Vitous' arrangement for orchestra and choir, while carefully constructed in and around the ensemble, appears so in-the-moment, that it feels as though it's a live performance.
The true strength and magic of Universal Syncopations II, like its predecessor, is that it is nearly impossible to know how much occurs in real time and how much is built, piece-by-piece, in post-production. It asserts the studio itself as an instrument, and allows Vitous the freedom to shape music that evolves differently than it might, were the music to be created in a more linear fashion. The end result is something that can (and hopefully will) be performed in concert; but the actual compositional process is as much an improvisation as the ensemble interaction at the core of the entire disc.
It's easy to be overwhelmed by the sheer audacity of Vitous' concept, but peel away the multitude of layers and it's still about improvisation. Despite its grander scale, it's a more unfettered album than Universal Syncopations. Vitous remains one of the most innovative bassists of the past forty years, and his ability to drive the music to unexpected places is yet another aspect of Universal Syncopations II that makes it a natural evolution and even more successful extension of ideas first explored on its more modest predecessor.
Track Listing: Opera; Breakthrough; The Prayer; Solar Giant Mediterranean Love; Gmoong; Universal Evolution; Moment.
Personnel: Miroslav Vitous: double-bass; Bob Mintzer: tenor saxophone (1, 6, 7), bass clarinet (7); Gary Campbell: soprano saxophone (1, 2, 4, 5, 7); tenor saxophone (3); Randy Brecker: trumpet (1, 6); Adam Nussbaum: drums (1); Gerald Cleaver: drums (2-5, 7); Daniele di Bonaventura: bandoneon (5); Bob Malach: tenor saxophone (8); Vesna Vaiko-Ciceres: voice (8).