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Keith Yaun Quartet: Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen

Derek Taylor By

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Classical composition and jazz improvisation have a relatively short history of co-existence most prominently traced in the developments of the Third Stream. Keith Yaun adds a new entry to the lineage through the austere interpretations of Olivier Messiaen scores, which comprise this disc. His partners in the project prove well suited to the kind of chamber music interplay required, sharing between them a deep understanding of the pitch properties of their respective instruments.

Maneri’s background in microtones becomes particularly useful in mapping the fractionary expanses of Yaun’s improvisatory translations. Wielding his handcrafted electric baritone violin, an imposing instrument that easily encroaches into the deeply resonating recesses of the cello range, his coloristic swathes often frame the tangential traps play of McLellan. Negotiating the music, which is often devoid of explicit pulse, the drummer’s carefully parsed patterns echoes the work of Randy Peterson (another associate of Maneri’s), but with more restraint and attention paid to tempered timbres. The guitarists make for a unusual, but highly complimentary, pair with Nix often favoring darker figures and the leader spooling out lighter, more luminous lines.

In their original forms these compositional referents where charted for piano, voice and pipe organ. Shaping them to the different instrumentation of electric guitars, amplified violin and percussion necessitates significant shifts both in terms of structure and tonality. The pieces frequently unfurl through a lattice of icy string-driven structures with McLellan offering oblique, but carefully prescribed rhythmic commentary. Moving from periods of comparative calm into sections of crisp complexity there’s a constant feeling of constriction and release in the interplay that transpires. Each of the string players trails their tail of effulgent electricity creating ghostly harmonic remnants that float within the quartet’s dynamic space and create the illusion of spectral accompaniment beyond the immediate four. Compositional differences between the five pieces become secondary to the spontaneous interpolations that occur within the wide spaces left for improvisation. As a result the disc ends up sounding more like a unified suite than a collection of discrete entities and picking out passages based on distinct content becomes more difficult. Solos surface repeatedly, but the overarching effect is largely one of complete ensemble interaction.

Cerebral and intricate this is music that demands close scrutiny and consideration. Casual listens are unlikely to reveal much in the way of what’s going on. But for those willing to devote the time and open themselves to both to the instruments and the fertile minds behind them there’s much to discover in Yaun’s creative reimaginings of Messiaen’s challenging charts.


Track Listing: La ville qui dormait, toi/ Amen de la cr

Personnel: Keith Yaun- guitar; Bern Nix- guitar; Mat Maneri- electric baritone violin; Johnny McLellan- percussion. Recorded: March 1 & 2, 1999, Framingham, MA.

Title: Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Boxholder Records

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