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Monday, September 25, 2017

MiND GAMeS - Ephemera Obscura (Clean Feed, 2017) ****

By Derek Stone

MiND GAMeS is a quartet consisting of Angelika Niescier (whose NYC Five is a recent favorite of mine) on alto sax, Denman Maroney on “hyperpiano” (I’ll get to that in a moment), James Ilgenfritz on bass, and Andrew Drury on percussion. The first release from the Brooklyn-based group was for the excellent OutNow Recordings label, but they’ve sinced moved on to Clean Feed, a choice that is brilliantly reflected in the quintessentially Clean Feed-ian cover art: a figure, some cross between Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and a World War II-era gas attack victim, stands amidst what appears to be a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Despite the decidedly ominous artwork (courtesy of Travassos, longtime designer for the label), the music contained within is an absolute pleasure to listen to - sometimes exuberant and complex, sometimes dim-lit and impressionistic.

The first few tracks belong to this former mode. “Harkinsish” is not unlike the small groups that Braxton was a part of in the mid-70’s, with wonderfully insistent basswork, Niescier’s lines that, despite their tunefulness, suggest hidden complexities, and Drury’s subtly-morping rhythms. Throw in Maroney’s “hyperpiano,” and you’ve got all the pieces you need to build a composition that, in its aversion to straightforward melodicism, is pleasantly puzzling. What is this hyperpiano, you ask? The Clean Feed page for the album makes note of “objects placed on the interior strings” - while the effect is not that noticeable in the first two or three pieces, it is nevertheless clear that there is something distinctive in Maroney’s playing: a breeziness, a light touch, a shiftiness. “Selonica” is the perfect example of this. Maroney’s contribution consists of a series of succint lines, Monk-ian phrases that sound as if the fat has all been trimmed off, but his presentation of them is such that each figure feels lush, full of ideas and potentialities.

When it comes to the second mode, that of the “dim-lit and impressionistic,” the group take things in a more subdued direction. “Ephemera Obscura” is a textural exploration of sorts, with the upbeat lyricism of previous tracks being boiled off to reveal the tonal essences underneath. The centerpiece is the 17-minute “Imprint 2,” which has at its heart a motif, glacial and serenely beautiful, that owes more to 20th-century minimalism than it does to contemporary jazz. As the piece unfolds, it undergoes various transformations that keep your attention locked: Maroney’s muted lines swell, recede, and permutate, Drury’s rhythms bubble and intensify, and Niescier moves from indistinct asides to confident assertions. It closes with evocative arco-work from Ilgenfritz, rustic lines that perfectly cap off the transportive feel of the piece. “Imprint 2” is the perfect example of how, in a composition where not much changes on a structural level, you can still get lost in the details. When “Ballard Compound,” with its pounding, unrelenting rhythms, appears, it’s a bit of a shock to the system - it almost feels like snapping out of a reverie.

With Ephemera Obscura, MiND GAMeS have made one of those jazz recordings that I love: the kind that offer a veritable grab-bag of styles and approaches. Bouncing, intricate pieces, dusty abstractions, long-form minimalism - it’s all here, and it’s all lovely. Highly recommended!