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Empty Cage Quartet: Hello The Damage!

Jack Gold-Molina By

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Formerly known as the MTKJ Quartet, the Empty Cage Quartet consists of Jason Mears (alto saxophone, clarinet, wood flutes), Kris Tiner (trumpet, flugelhorn), Paul Kikuchi (drums, percussion) and Ivan Johnson (bass). The title of this recording comes from an English translation of a negative French review of one of the MTKJ Quartet's previous releases. Negative French review or not, with its constant touring, the Empty Cage Quartet has been burning up clubs in the US for years. The music on Hello The Damage! was recorded during a West Coast tour; two sets in Los Angeles on a night in December 2005 comprise the music in this two-disc package.

Mears, Tiner, Kikuchi and Johnson are dedicated to the performance of spontaneous composition while, according to Dottie Grossman in the disc's liner notes, attempting to transcend "traditional" improvisation and composition as well as the "cliches of 'free jazz,'" avoiding any tendency toward self-expression at the expense of musicality. The music begins with direction: a seemingly obvious melody, possibly composed, but not so blatantly or rigidly structured that the group can't improvise. Mears (playing alto) and Tiner (playing trumpet) hack away at structure in the melody while Kikuchi and Johnson improvise in broken time. This soon gives way to an up-tempo swing. Kikuchi and Tiner duet, playing off of each other, and as Johnson comes back in to support Kikuchi, the music picks up steam.

After a few minutes of Tiner soloing on top of the rhythm section, the tune gradually gives way to timelessness, first with bass and drums playing almost no time at all, and then with the bass soloing. The two horns come back in very slowly, playing a broken melody in tandem and creating a feeling of transcendence and surrealism. Kikuchi accentuates this with press rolls and hi-hat work, laying down a backbeat, while Mears switches to clarinet to solo and bring the music further toward transcendence.

The timelessness of the group's music is pronounced with Mears's wailing alto saxophone—shrill, piercing high notes—until Kikuchi brings in a completely broken, swinging rhythm. Johnson bows his bass fiercely to create texture while Mears and Tiner exchange improvisational phrases. The rhythm stops, with only Kikuchi playing small percussion and cymbals with mallets, alone creating the musical tapestry with the timbre of his instruments. In slow, classical form, Johnson starts back in over Kikuchi's rhythms, and Mears and Tiner duet with improvised melodic phrasing. The intensity grows while the tempo keeps at a slow pace, and the horns continue their melodic exploration while Kikuchi lays in hard on the drums to bring the piece to a crescendo.

As the music once again gives way to near-timelessness, it is clear that this quartet is a formidable jazz unit with the ability to play powerful swing time and solid rhythms, going after the music from completely outside in a manner approaching the classical avant-garde.


Track Listing: CD1: Attack of the Eye People; Who Are They If We Are Them?; The Mactavish Rag; And Who Is Not Small; Function-3. CD2: Swan-Neck Deformity; The Empty Cage; Swim Swim Swim, Eat Eat Eat.

Personnel: Jason Mears: alto saxophone, clarinet, wood flutes; Kris Tiner: trumpet, flugelhorn; Paul Kikuchi: drums, percussion; Ivan Johnson: bass.

Title: Hello The Damage! | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: pfMentum


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