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Saturday, March 27, 2021

Alexander Hawkins - Togetherness Music (Intakt, 2021) ****½

By Lee Rice Epstein

Kicking off 2021 with a major work for small orchestra, Riot Ensemble, and Evan Parker, pianist and composer Alexander Hawkins brings this epic new work straight out of a brief reprieve from the 2020 COVID-19 lockdowns. Set aside, for a moment, anything you may have recently read or heard regarding Parker's thoughts on the pandemic, Togetherness Music is a remarkable assembly of many of the UK's best players. Like his previous magnum opus, Unit[e], this latest showcases Hawkins channeling the lessons of Anthony Braxton and Muhal Richard Abrams, and forging his own, clear path forward with a unique lexicon.

In what's quickly becoming a typical Hawkins pattern, the polymathic lineup reflects his multi-perspective view of composition and performance. Sound groupings and melodic patterns intersect with the ensemble as light through a prism, with orchestral instrumentation inclusive of electronics and doubled-voicings. The album features Hawkins on piano, Parker on soprano sax, Percy Pursglove on trumpet, Rachel Musson and James Arben on flutes, Musson on tenor, Arben on bass clarinet, Hannah Marshall on cello, Benedict Taylor on viola, Neil Charles on double bass, Mark Sanders on drums, and Matthew Wright on electronics. In addition, the members of the Riot Ensemble appearing here include Mandhira de Saram and Marie Schreer on violin, Stephen Upshaw on viola, Louise McMonagle on cello, and Marianne Schofield on double bass. The doubling of viola, cello, and double bass across the Hawkins and Riot ensembles provides the recording with a sonic heft that balances out the winds and brass.

Structurally, the album is a mirror twin of itself, opening with a ten-minute solo from Parker, in which the ensemble rises to meet him with an almost Lygeti-esque progression. Parker's technique is simply unmatched, and his choices do expertly converge with the rest of the group. But it's as Parker's line wends its way to Pursglove's, which moves to the fore on the second track, “Sea No Shore,” that the structure of the whole suite begins to reveal its form. At this point, as well, the music takes on tones of Toshiyuki Miyama's New Herd Orchestra. The structure and form feel commingled in a way that Hawkins has been moving towards for several albums, and the tonal warmth of “Ensemble Equals Together” is another point along his trajectory exploring community, organized improvisation, and a kind of social harmonics. Towards the end, as strings fall away into a tense, minor space, Parker's sax attempts to keep the group aloft. The tension is expert, Marshall and Taylor dashing forwards towards a suspense-laden finale.

Contrasting with Parker's solo, Hawkins takes the lead on “Leaving the Classroom of a Beloved Teacher” with a slightly relaxed opening. Within the space of about two minutes, however, he's toured stride, swing, and free alike, dipping into a century of Waller, Ellington, and Taylor. Charles, one of Hawkins's longtime musical partners, is so perfectly suited to duetting on this one, and the rest of the ensemble circles them both with sparkling, contrapuntal motion. For anyone who has followed Hawkins for some time, a title referencing baobabs promises something special. “Ecstatic Baobabs” marks the sixth recorded variation, following recordings by Hawkins solo, with trio and ensemble, and with the Convergence Quartet. The voicing in this version echoes previous variations, Easter eggs for a close listen, with Marshall and Taylor again taking the spotlight. This family of pieces often gives performers the chance to show their patient, meditative side, putting listeners into an impressionistic space, similar to the effect of a Joseph Jarman composition. Again, this is Hawkins drawing on a deep wellspring of inspiration, and it finds its apotheosis in “Optimism of the Will,” which reflects and builds upon “Ensemble Equals Together,” bringing the suite to its structural conclusion. As Hawkins explained elsewhere , the basic structure looks like this:

1: Solo feature — 2: Improvised contrast — 3: Tutti culmination

4: Solo feature — 5: Composed contrast — 6: Tutti culmination

And while it's admittedly useful to understand this, from a technical perspective, in fact the whole ensemble performs so successfully, one can easily glean the intention without much parsing. Gliding from movement to movement, Musson, Pursglove, Arben, and Parker give a series of striking performances, embracing the opportunity to perform in concert—even if not “in concert”—and giving themselves up to the goals of the music. If that sounds lofty, it's important to recall where we were at roughly a year ago, as Hawkins assembled the musicians in person to record the suite. Stormy, turbulent, unknown, 2020 was many things, memorable above all for the global COVID-19 outbreak. So much of last year's new music was performed in isolated solo, recorded at home by the artists themselves. And so, the fact of a large ensemble recording, wearing its utopic vision on its sleeve, seems improbable, at best. And yet, here we are, and everyone involved has done the near impossible and made what's already a highlight of the new year. Good on them.

Read an interview by Lee Rice Epstein with Alexander Hawkins here.