Bassist Shawn Lovato's debut album, Cycles of Animation (Skirl, 2017), possessed a conceptual sophistication that went far beyond an imaginative slice of creative jazz. The same is evident on Microcosms, an album that involves giving his terrific ensemble the chance to develop minute gestures into larger, more determinate shapes. The constant ebb and flow that results is compelling, with a sense of order that periodically takes hold amidst the individual members' freedom to find their own pathways to a common destination.
Lovato is an active contributor to Hotel Elefant, a New Music collective that includes guitarist Hannis Brown and violinist Patti Kilroy, both of whom are key components of Lovato's septet on Microcosms. The other members, pianist Santiago Leibson, alto saxophonist Michael Attias, drummer Vinnie Sperrazza and percussionist Colin Hinton, will be familiar names to listeners attuned to the latest currents in contemporary creative jazz. Each of these musicians has a distinctive voice, and Lovato's compositions are capacious enough to define loose parameters wherein they can make their presence felt while still staying somehow tethered to the whole. Although the album is divided into eight "tracks," it is best experienced as a continuous suite of music, as each section transitions seamlessly into the next.
Given the open-ended nature of Lovato's compositions, there is a fair amount of indeterminacy as individual musicians, or sometimes pairs of musicians, have the chance to explore ideas that only gradually cohere into riveting ensemble performance. So, for example, the brooding atmosphere that characterizes the beginning of "Microcosms (Opening)," involves Lovato's droning bass arco and Leibson's throbbing lower register, before Attias and the others find their way into the piece and something more cohesive emerges. Similarly, "Serenity Amid Absurdity" sees Kilroy and Brown in a highly abstract exploration that eventually finds its way into determinacy, with a quickening pace and complex motif that unites the group in a dramatic finish.
The band has a terrific rapport, and the moments in which all seven musicians find their collective voice are exhilarating. "Modular Ascension," the second section of the suite, might be the best example, as the band moves from a quirky odd-tempo groove into a more amorphous mode, where freedom temporarily prevails; but Attias steers the music back toward its ferocious conclusion, with the saxophonist careening into the ether as the band surges underneath him. By comparison, the sections devoted to the individual players lack a bit of that gripping energy, and it does sometimes require some patience to follow the pieces' trajectory until they arrive at those episodic boiling points. Even so, Microcosms packs a lot of music into its 37-minute runtime, and adventurous listeners will find a lot to enjoy in Lovato's forward-thinking music.
Microcosms (opening); Modular Ascension (for alto saxophone); Serenity Amid Absurdity (for violin and guitar);
Splitting Hairs Part I (for drums); Splitting Hairs Part II (for piano and percussion); Splitting Atoms Part I (for
ensemble); Splitting Atoms Part II (for bass); Microcosms (closing).
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