Keyboardist and composer Wayne Horvitz's new improvising chamber group, the Gravitas Quartet, makes its Songlines debut with Way Out East. In a set that's reminiscent of his previous rhythm section-less unit, the Four plus One Ensemble, Horvitz and company premiere an accessible set of evocative chamber jazz that's both austere and experimental, unified by Horvitz's lyrical writing.
Horvitz once dabbled in an array of old school electronic effects and vintage keyboards, from Hammond organ to DX-7, but he limits himself here to piano with only the occasional foray on synthesizer. This stripped-down ensemble sound highlights his gradual drift towards a more melodic and populist sensibility in ways his more amplified projects like Pigpen or Zony Mash obscured it with their focus on groove and density.
In the confines of this spare acoustic setting, his delicate and nuanced piano playing is given center stage. Only on the assertive "Reveille" does he really plug in, summoning watery, gamelan-influenced arpeggios and crashing, metallic synth shards over the clarion calls and staccato interjections of the ensemble.
Bassoonist Sara Schoenbeck and cellist Peggy Lee contribute lithe lines and fragile phrases alongside occasionally terse passages. Schoenbeck's playing veers from tranquil rumination to agitated, multiphonic fanfare. Lee fluctuates between cinematic lushness and sinuous audacity. Alternating between refined support roles and featured solo interludes, these two players span the entire history of their respective instruments.
As a regular sideman of guitarist Bill Frisell, trumpeter Ron Miles' familiar brassy refrains are instantly identifiable. The singular stylist's inventive contributions to this record are among its many riches, including emotionally vulnerable and adventurously exploratory solos on the beautifully haunting title track and the epic album centerpiece, "Berlin 1914." Like Frisell's rhythm section-less album Quartet (Nonesuch, 1996), this record traffics in dusky pastoral Americana, albeit with a more wintry sheen.
The Gravitas Quartet occupies a conceptual no man's land somewhere between nostalgia and the future, where pensive, minor-key piano excursions are joined by stately cello, regal bassoon, ghostly trumpet and burbling electronics. Way Out East perfectly assimilates Horvitz's bittersweet melodies and sci-fi futurism into a synchronous sound world all his own.
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