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Michael Vlatkovich: Mortality

Dave Wayne By

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Wow. Where to start? Apropos of its title, Mortality is huge. Vast. Complex. Quixotic. Musically, it's a mega-ambitious work that fuses operatic vocals, several styles of jazz, heavily-scored contemporary classical music and flat-out improvisational wailing in the most appealing ways possible. Interestingly, Michael Vlatkovich, a West Coast trombone virtuoso and composer / improvisor of considerable merit, is a guy who devotes considerable time to small group projects of various types—most notably tenor saxophonist Rich Halley's quartet—plus his own septet with Ron Miles, and a quartet with guitarist Tom McNalley. Yet, Vlatkovich's large ensemble projects, though few and far between, are always risky, grandly adventurous and eclectic to a fault. Transvalue Book III, (Thank You Records, 2008), for example, is an insane mashup of spoken word and avant-jazz-rock fusion for 15 instrumentalists and 10 vocalists. As in much of Vlatkovich's music, dark humor frequently bubbles up close to its surfaces, but it's also an eminently listenable and inspiring musical experience that I've returned to on many occasions. Mortality is similar, only without the spoken word. Like the entire Transvalue series, Mortality is ambitious, multi-layered and simply dares the listener to let it recede into the background.

Listening to the intricacies of this music, the blazing improvisations, the razor-sharp orchestrations, and the forward- leaning élan of the rhythm section, I was happily reminded of Frank Zappa's large-scale jazz-rock albums such as The Grand Wazoo (Reprise Records, 1972), Them or Us (Barking Pumpkin Records, 1984), and Make a Jazz Noise Here (Zappa Records, 1991). Though I am not sure how Vlatkovich feels about Frank Zappa, both "Adeptly disguised as chairs and tables the audience listened quietly" and the title track contain some sly references to Zappa's more avant-garde compositional efforts: convoluted, rhythmically complex tutti horn parts suspended over buzzing snare drums and ringing mallet percussion, prominent clarinet, bassoon and operatic vocals, and ensemble improvisations interrupted by seemingly random interjections of tambourine, woodblocks and all manner of small percussion. Yet, on the title track, in between the ensemble passages, we hear lush, expansive unaccompanied improvisations from cellist Jonathan Golove, trumpeter Dan Clucas, and tenor saxophonist Bill Plake. Elsewhere, Vlatkovich breaks the ensemble down into smaller sections to support his own sparkling improvisations, or those of Plake, McNalley (who really shines on the album's first track), pianist Wayne Peet and bassist Dominic Genova.

There's plenty of other stuff going on here that doesn't sound like Frank Zappa. "Hiding out as a verb" pits strings against horns over a crazy stop-start rhythm. Blazing horn improvisations (most notably by alto saxophonist Andrew Pask) sail over the top of the action, adding further tension to an already tense situation. There are numerous respites from this crazy intensity. Bassoon, voice, strings, and clarinet figure prominently on the sweet-and-sour "As quickly as it came," which sounds a little like a movie soundtrack before slowly morphing into something closer to 20th Century avant-garde chamber music. "Sometimes a red nose and big shoes aren't enough" is a mournful chamber piece that conceals a small, but crucial, piano melody. Vlatkovich the trombonist steps out on "Goodbye," a stark and simple duet with Peet that ends this bustling beehive of an album on an oddly introspective note.

Track Listing: Adeptly disguised as chairs and tables the audience listened quietly; As quickly as it came; Or do you have change for a $20?; Out of the wall and into the night; Sometimes a red nose and big shoes aren't enough; Mortality; Hiding out as a verb; Goodbye.

Personnel: Michael Vlatkovich: trombone; Dan Clucas: trumpet; Jill Torberson: French horn; Bill Plake: tenor sax; David Riddles: bassoon, flute, soprano sax, clarinet; Andrew Pask: alto and bari saxophones, bass clarinet; Bill Roper: tuba, bombardondino; Harry Scorzo: violin; Jonathan Golove: cello; Tom McNalley: electric guitar; Dominic Genova: bass; Wayne Peet: piano, keyboards; Carol Sawyer: voice; Ken Park: drums, mallet percussion, all other percussion.

Title: Mortality | Year Released: 2015 | Record Label: pfMentum

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