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Jon Armstrong: Burnt Hibiscus

Dave Wayne By

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Now firmly ensconced as the Director of Jazz Studies at Idaho State University, Jon Armstrong may just be a little homesick. Well, more than a little. After all, Pocatello is a far cry from the multi-cultural hustle and bustle of his hometown of Los Angeles. It's not surprising that Armstrong's new album, Burnt Hibiscus is a quirky and ambitious paean to the City of Angels. In Armstrong's own words, Burnt Hibiscus is an ..."unsentimental love letter to Los Angeles, highlighting the hypnagogic quality of life as an artist in the southland." I had to look up "hypnagogic." It means "relating to the state immediately before falling asleep." Which isn't to say that Armstrong and his band were sleepwalking through these seven tracks. Quite the opposite. The musicians in Armstrong's 10-piece band are quite literally the cream of LA's youngest crop of edgy, forward-looking improvisers and they play Armstrong's unique compositions with intense focus and awareness.

As much as Burnt Hibiscus is about LA, it seems to be about something else as well. There's a strong undercurrent of northern Indian and Pakistani music here, which acts as a unifying element throughout the album. Each piece also features lyrics written by Erin Armstrong, Jon's wife and fellow reed player. Though her lyrics, poems really, are described as "surrealistic," they seem to deal—in various ways—with the interfaces between the hard edges and neglected spaces of the city and the ways in which nature is slowly reclaiming them; the sorts of things an observant individual might notice when taking a long urban hike.

Vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Sheela Bringi is front and center throughout. Her vocals fuse the Hindustani classical approach of Pandit Pran Nath with the sort of jazzy rhythmic undulations Armstrong's music demands. Her work on harmonium, harp and bansuri flute (each uncannily beautiful) adds multiple dimensions to Armstrong's already profound artistry as a composer / arranger. Her tendency to sing along with the harmonium makes certain passages here somewhat reminiscent of Jai Uttal's more jazz-focused work, or perhaps some of Charlie Mariano's cross-cultural experiments from the 1970s and 80s. It's a fusion that, in Armstrong's hands, feels utterly unforced and natural.

Though his tenor saxophone is featured prominently in the album's opening minutes, Armstrong unselfishly cedes center stage to his band mates. Each piece on Burnt Hibiscus was written specifically to feature one or more of his colleagues. Some of Armstrong's choices in this regard are truly remarkable. "There They Are," a gentle ballad, pairs Bringi's harp with Clinton Patterson's eloquent trumpet. Nestled within a chorale of gentle brass, flutes and harmonium (with Bringi's voice on top), Ryan Dragon's trombone slowly unfolds like a time-lapse of a green shoot emerging from the soil on the meditative "Crimson Tarp." The skillful drums and percussion of Tina Raymond and Chris Payne set the stage for Gavin Templeton's fiercely emotive alto solo on the driving East-West fusion of "The Earth Slides Slowly." Here, and on the more rhythmically forceful pieces such as "Apricot," "Maybe a Lime," and the set-closing "Then Ring Again Bells," comparisons to the work of Peter Apfelbaum's Hieroglyphics Ensemble would not be far-fetched. The drummers get another chance to shine during the closing minutes of "Then Ring Again Bells," where Raymond engages Payne in a kaleidoscopic call-and-response.

Another interesting element here is Armstrong's use of the guitar. It's a purely rhythmic device; providing a stark contrast to Bringi's gently droning, perpetually rubato, harmonium. A curiously banjo-like single note squiggle adds another dimension to Stefan Kac's tuba solo on "Maybe a Lime," while a hypnotic arpeggio acts as a jumping-off point for a spiraling Bansuri flute and clarinet duet on "Flat Water."

The music on Burnt Hibiscus is understated, but rich in detail and full of fascinating transitions and interfaces. There is, indeed, a gauzy, hypnagogic feel to much of this music; as if one is slowly sinking into a bizarre-yet- pleasant dream world leaving the humdrum mundanity of day-to-day existence behind.

Track Listing: Apricot; Crimson Tarp; Maybe A Lime; There They Are; The Earth Slides Slowly; Flat Water; Then Ring Again Bells.

Personnel: Jon Armstrong: tenor saxophone, electric guitar; Sheela Bringi: vocals, harmonium, harp, bansuri flute; Clinton Patterson: trumpet; Ryan Dragon: trombone; Stefan Kac: tuba; Erin Armstrong: clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, poetry; Gavin Templeton: alto and baritone saxophones, bass clarinet, flute; Brian Walsh: bass clarinet, clarinet; Tina Raymond: drums; Chris Payne: kanjira, krakebs, frame drum, pandeiro, bongos.

Title: Burnt Hibiscus | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Orenda Records

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