“The challenge of the next cycle of creative music will call for both new and traditional solutions,” Anthony Braxton prophesied some time in the late seventies. Some of the musicians belonging to “the next cycle” are entering the stage right now, defying neoclassicism while not giving up on tradition altogether, looking for the new yet cleverly avoiding to get stuck in the dogmas of an outmoded avant-garde.
These young musicians from the Bay Area call themselves Married Couple – could they have chosen a more ironic name? This is quite an interesting concept of a “couple,” considering that it consists of four players: trombonist Rob Ewing, drummer Jason Levis, tenorist Jonah Minton (who has recorded with Earth, Wind, and Fire trombonist Reggie Young and opened up for Chick Corea), and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa, known to some from the Middle Eastern band Pharaoh’s Daughter (Knitting Factory Records).
What their messing with marriage suggests goes more deeply, of course. It’s all about breaking the rules of musical monogamy. Which makes it an intriguing task to describe the music of their debut, Looks Like a Pie To Me. Some of the material consists of radically deconstructed pop songs, like “Here is the House” by Depeche Mode, “Tripoli” by Pinback, and “Parallel Lines” by Kings of Convenience. Then there’s an adaptation of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8. And finally, the majority of the tunes are originals by the band members. If this reads like the typical postmodern pastiche that turned into an ideology in its own right at some point during the eighties (is there any musician around who says he does not want to tear down genre boundaries? Please email me, I’m always looking for curiosities), I assure you it’s not that simple.
Married Couple doesn’t go for eclecticism of the vulgar sort. What they are after is a group sound of their own. And this is exactly their major, astonishing achievement. This is music with a nothing less than a vision. Whether they use a section of a song to swing madly, whether they improvise collectively or whether they take turns accompanying each other – this quartet is always producing an exquisite melange in timbre. Take tenor saxophonist Jonah Minton, for instance: sometimes his tone will remind you of Chris Potter, sometimes he’ll use as much subtone as Ben Webster (well, almost as much). But whatever he chooses, it’s determined by the sounds of the rest of the group, especially by trombonist Rob Ewing, who jumps from Tricky Sam Nanton growls to J.J. Johnson to Albert Mangelsdorff.
But there’s vision in another sense here, too. Married Couple lets the listener see right through what it's doing. All its complexity notwithstanding, this music is amazingly transparent. This is largely due to drummer Jason Levis (also a talented classical composer), who rarely plays a steady beat and instead creates sparse textures. He’s always present but never obtrusive, which opens a lot of room for bassist Lisa Mezzacappa. At their best, these young musicians build up intriguing pieces out of no more than three different notes, and even when they’re swinging and shuffling you have the feeling that you can still take a long breath between the notes.
Maybe one should employ the term chamber music here if only it weren’t so overused on shelves filled with esoteric ECM ramblings. No, Looks Like a Pie To Me has a palpable sense of fun to it. Let’s say it’s an ironic celebration of open space. And one of the most surprising and convincing records I’ve come across in the first part of 2003.