Reed and wind instrumentalist Ned Rothenberg is an almost frighteningly talented musician and composer. Without the charismatic approach of other downtown playerspeople like John Zorn and Elliott Sharp, who borrowed from different genres to define their soundRothenberg's focus has been on mastering his instrument. And despite his humble statement of hearing a "not yet fully formed voice, included in the liner notes [applicable only to "Trials of Argo" to this collection of self-released recordings from 1980 to 1985, what is apparent some twenty years later is that Rothenberg is still concerned with the same thing: the creation of a virtuosic voice withinnot on top ofa variety of musical settings and ideas.
Most of the dozen pieces here, culled from three records on his Lumina label, are unaccompanied and were created early in Rothenberg's years in New York while he was woodshedding and beginning to play solo concerts. The variety of moods he creates on a monophonic instrument is just astounding. Most of the pieces are for alto saxophone, with a few devoted to bass clarinet or a custom-built double ocarina. But a few tracks also capture duo playing, making this a valuable document of the early days of the downtown scene as well. "Polysemy is a fantastic piece of work, with Gerry Hemingway playing steel drum (in addition to trap kit); and "Kakeai is a good dose of saxophone skronk, with Zorn also playing alto.
Of particular interest is the opening track, the 22-minute "Trials of the Argo, a studio construction which pairs his horn with recordings of Bob Ostertag's analog synthesizer and Jim Katzin's violin (the three had come to New York in 1978 as the Fall Mountain trio). Also included are three previously unreleased bass clarinet tracks from 1991 and 1998two featuring real-time processing of Rothenberg's playing by David Weinsteinthat show his continued interest in subsuming into sonic ideas, rather than vamping on them.
It's the rare musician who can pull off solo performance without simply displaying chops. These newly available recordings show Rothenberg to be very much of that breed.
Track Listing: Trials of the Argo; Continuo After the Inuit; Portal; Polysemy; Caeneus; Strata; Trespass.
Personnel: Gerry Hemingway: steel drum, trap kit; Ned Rothenberg: alto saxophone, bass clarinet, processed bass clarinet, soprano double ocarina, woodwinds, trap set, homemade instruments; David Weinstein: live digital signal processing; John Zorn: alto saxophone.
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