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Jesse Elder: The Winding Shell

Chris Mosey By

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A small black and white picture on the sleeve shows 29-year-old New York avant-garde pianist/composer Jesse Elder, unsmilingly clasping a hand to his head. His eyes are shut tight, screwed up as if in pain.

Below the picture a note explains that The Winding Shell is part of a series "dedicaded (sic) to Modern jazz, New classical, Avant rock, Experimental beats and Women voices." All the warning signs have been displayed: this is obviously not going to be an easy listen.

Fair enough. The idea that music should be easy to listen to was dealt a severe blow in the 1930s when emigré/Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg decided to abandon "the dominance of a centralized melodic idea." This resulted in him writing pieces that—to put it simply—were not in tune. Perhaps not surprisingly, nothing Schoenberg wrote ever topped the charts but he had a great and lasting influence on modern music. In jazz Bird, Diz and Trane—to name but a few—heeded his teachings.

Jesse Elder no doubt encountered Schoenberg's teachings in his studies at the Interlochen Arts Academy, the Oberlin Conservatory and New School University. He not only follows the master in abandoning a centralized melodic idea, but goes further in discarding symmetrical musical development and the idea of a fixed rhythmic pulse. To put it simply, his music is calculatedly chaotic. It's white man's, orchestrated loft jazz.

The first nine tracks—all Elder's own compositions—feature an ensemble of various New York jazzmen, including Gary Thomas on tenor saxophone and Logan Richardson on alto. Thomas, who once played with Miles Davis in one of his later, electric incarnations, plays a lengthy, quite interesting if fashionably discordant solo on one of Elder's most distinctive songs, "Surrender."

Tenor duties are taken over by Jeremy Viner on "Solar Plexus." One of the more listenable pieces, "The Thoughtful Nudge" is meditative with odd intervals—almost tuneful on occasion and featuring a nice, reflective solo by Elder. Chris Cheek, who has played with Charlie Haden and Paul Motian's Electric Bebop Band, plays tenor on "Flight of the Pelican," "Red Paint" and the title track. By now the music has settled into a nervy, jagged expression of existential angst...or something like it.

The last four tracks, improvisational duets by Elder and Japanese pianist Aya Nishina, a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music, come as something of a relief after the unrelenting intensity of the ensemble pieces, though they are similarly chaotic.

The intention of the whole is undeniably serious, perhaps a little too much so for its own good.

People, Jesse Elder and friends have suffered for their music.

Now it's your turn.

Track Listing: Surrender; Solar Plexus; The Thoughtful Nudge; Flight Of The Pelican; Rotating Canvases; Kiss Rain; Red Paint; The Winding Shell; All Moments; I; II; III; IV.

Personnel: Logan Richardson: alto saxophone; Gary Thomas: tenor saxophone; Jess Elder: piano; Christopher Tordini: bass; Tyshawn Sorey: drums; Chris Cheek: tenor saxophone; Jeremy Viner: tenor saxophone; Aya Nishina: piano.

Title: The Winding Shell | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Off


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