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Lisa Mezzacappa: avantNOIR

Nicola Negri By

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avantNOIR—an homage to the tradition of hard-boiled fiction and film noir? The imaginary soundtrack for an abstract crime novel? A reimagining of Fifties' jazz combos through the language of avant-garde? This new record by bassist Lisa Mezzacappa is all of the above and much, much more.

Equally inspired by the hard-boiled novels of Dashiell Hammett and the existential crime stories of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy—with more than a few hints to the classic film noir canon—avantNOIR is a project that not only gets inspiration from the world of noir fiction, but that actually enacts a detective's case in musical terms, "using clues and imagery from the crime novels such as maps, letters, messages and relationships between characters, numbers and places, to create compositions with acoustic and electric sounds, field recordings and composed and improvised material."

Mezzacappa's ingenious compositional structures cleverly balance precise instructions and creative freedom, and all the musicians she recruited for this project are equally important for its successful realization. The ensemble includes Aaron Bennett (tenor sax), John Finkbeiner (electric guitar) and Jordan Glenn (drums); as well as veterans of the West Coast experimental and avant-garde scenes like William Winant (vibraphone, percussion, sound effects) and Tim Perkis, whose electronics give the proceedings a slightly sinister edge, an alien character completely different from what we are usually used to hear in jazz contexts.

The noir theme triggers a series of inescapable suggestions, in an intriguing game of references (real or imagined): the structural complexity of "The Ballad of Big Flora," with its intricate rhythmic evolutions, mirrors the stark urban maze of Hammett's San Francisco; the unresolved nature of "Ghosts," a richly layered composition with a strong narrative line, hints at the obscure anguish of Auster's New York.
"Bird in the Hand," evolving from the interlocking rhythms of a luscious theme to an ever changing soundscape complete with samples from The Maltese Falcon, suggests a cinematic dimension that is indeed present throughout the album. This reference is further reinforced by Winant's Foley, a technique still used in film studios, where sound effects—rotary phone, typewriter, footsteps—are actually performed live.

All of these may be subjective impressions, but the music has an undeniable evocative power, amplified by inventive orchestrations, surprising instrumental solutions and the extreme originality with which the sonic material is treated, transformed and continually reimagined, in a series of engaging narratives and disorienting abstractions that make of avantNOIR a complex and yet immediately captivating experience—as dizzying as the quest for the mysterious box in the quintessential West Coast noir Kiss Me Deadly.

Track Listing: Fillmore Street; The Ballad of Big Flora; Army Street; Medley on the Big Knockover (Green St. / At Larrouy’s Bar / Montgomery St.); A Bird in the Hand; Quinn’s Serenade ; Ghosts (Black and White, then Blue); Babel.

Personnel: Aaron Bennett: saxophones; John Finkbeiner: electric guitar; Jordan Glenn: drums; Lisa Mezzacappa: acoustic bass; William Winant: vibraphone, percussion, Foley; Tim Perkis: electronics.

Title: avantNOIR | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Clean Feed Records

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