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Jesse Elder: The Winding Shell

Raul d'Gama Rose By

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Pianist Jesse Elder has no time for linear melodies, or logical, arithmetical rhythms. Still, on The Winding Shell, he shows himself to be a rather clever master of song form. In prismatic style, he lights up his tunes with refracted luminous and melodic excursions. He plays these around the musicians who augment his obtuse schematics, and receives an almost revered response—not for his leadership, but rather for the solemn musical ground that some of them cover. There is also a certain violence to these vignettes, though this is not menacing—just a little like reacting to scatological situations that practitioners of this music often find themselves in. Although The Winding Shell has that '70s kind of counter-culture ring to it, song titles and all, there is something truly accessible here.

A very astute musician, in many ways Elder has transported himself to an imagined landscape. There is an enormous debt being paid here to the music of Paul Bowles. Bowles who discerned the linearity and inevitability of life in Tangier, where he chose to live out his eventful life. Elder also seems to have heard or is influenced by Moroccan Gnawas and griot musicians and his soul seems to be in a similar place.

Stripped of all posturing and self-consciousness, he is joined by a group of cohorts—tenor saxophonists Gary Thomas and Chris Cheek in particular—for whom the development of ideas in song is deeply ingrained. In their organic extensions of sound, the growth of melodies and harmonies is almost tentacular; cut one phrase off and another develops, as if the arm of a musician developed again.

Thomas grumbles in characteristic fashion on "Solar Plexus," whining down to a grunt to finish an appropriate phrase, as Pharoah Sanders used to do. Cheek, on the other hand, chatters and sings relentlessly and commandingly when his time comes, always holding court the way Sonny Rollins does. "The Thoughtful Nudge" is a slow, brooding song that appears to hang in space, pirouetting chromatically as if two dancers were performing Tai Chi-like ballet movements. Elder is particularly profound here, and holds the composition in suspended animation, taking it on a minor excursion before bringing it back to an altered rhythmic state.

Although the other tracks are far from of a similar kind, their narrative, impressionistic character provides plenty of room for the other players—drummer Tyshawn Sorey and bassist Christopher Tordini—to add melodic extrapolations.

The four-part, four-hand improvisation played by Elder and fellow pianist Aya Nishina is a superb invention, the sheer power of the players' virtuosity recalling an event of old. Many composers and players have attempted such displays. The Labeque sisters once performed George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," but the intensity of the piece rather recalls a time when Maurice Ravel may have created such inventive displays to preview his work. Ravel's "Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major"—albeit three hands shorter—makes for a stranger, yet more closely related bedfellow.

Elder is an intriguing and mesmerizing pianist.

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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