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Stich Wynston's Modern Surfaces: Transparent Horizons

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Toronto musician Stich Wynston takes drumming about as far from its timekeeping role as it can possibly go on Transparent Horizons, his first CD since his 1999 eponymous debut on Buzz Records. Wynston and his group Modern Surfaces (saxophonist Mike Murley, guitarist Geoff Young, and bassist Jim Vivian) maintain almost the same lineup as the previous album—only guest pianist Paul Bley is missing. Here they dispense with a pianist, with the exception of "Spiral Nebula, where Stich himself plays a Debussy-esque solo piano étude, and "Intergalactic Spheres, where the group plays around a looped piano arpeggio that provides the recording's only rigid time.

Wynston is obviously influenced by Jack DeJohnette and Paul Motian; he's got DeJohnette's muscularity and Motian's painterly approach. Like fellow Toronto drummer Barry Romberg—who produced the CD—he uses rolling fills and explosive accents to adorn musical space, not to provide metronomic time. Wynston and Young share the compositional credits (four and six tracks each, respectively), and their pieces are of a similar intuitive, impressionistic hue. I've sung the praises of Young many times, and his distinctive, spidery lines have never been more appropriate than in this ensemble. Vivian (who plays in Young's own trio) contributes ruminative lines and rich, resonant arco statements, and Murley's tenor and curved soprano add an otherworldly, keening presence.

Because this is otherworldly, even cosmic music. It is not, however, a New Age kind of cosmos; it's too unsettling. Young's long "Automatic Entry may be the sparsest tune here, with Young's almost spaghetti-western, twanging guitar cagily stating the theme against Wynston's no-time fills before Vivian (on arco bass) and Murley (on curved soprano) play meditative, glacial solos; meanwhile, Wynston's drums and hand percussion fill in space, like a painter putting blue here and magenta there. The players seem to be toying with Monk's "'Round Midnight in the theme and solos.

Individual accompanied solos aren't common here, though; there's really nothing that qualifies as comping in the traditional sense. Instead, we get the simultaneous four-way interplay of, say, "Existential Departures, where all the musicians are in a sense soloing at the same time—a sort of space polyphony. This actually requires an acute awareness of what the other musicians are doing; this is a listening band. This peculiar polyphony is also utterly unclaustrophobic: the fifth member of the group on this album is silence.

The overall impression is often a contradictory one of past and future intersecting. Wynston plays a fascinating, visceral solo on kit and what sounds like sheet metal on "Caboose (although the song's bookended with a tenor/guitar/rattling-popcorn-drums theme, the solo's in essence the tune) that is both deeply modern and oddly atavistic—like Yanomamo Indians armed with Blackberries and samplers.

The disc ends with Young's gorgeous "New One, an absolutely lovely, melodic (and comparatively conventional) Spanish-tinged number that gently lowers the listener back to terra firma after sixty minutes in an eerie and occasionally frightening deep space. It's not a journey for the timid—but it's one very much worth taking.


Track Listing: 1. Outward Bound 2. I Think This Party's Over 3. Existential Departures 4. Surf Aces 5. Spiral Nebula 6. Evanescence 7. Caboose 8. Automatic Entry 9. Intergalactic Spheres 10. New One

Personnel: Mike Murley: tenor and curved soprano saxophone; Geoff Young: guitar; Jim Vivian: acoustic bass; Stich Wynston: drums, piano

Title: Transparent Horizons | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: TCB Music

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