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Saturday, August 7, 2021

Anna Webber - Idiom (PI Recordings, 2021) ****½

I still rather vividly recall first hearing woodwind's Anna Webber's compositions sometime ago and looking back at a review of the Simple Trio from 2014, I realized that all I wrote then still applied. All of the notes on her music's concentrated intricate interconnecting pieces and edgy improvisation still apply, and if anything, her powers have only grown stronger.

On Idiom, Webber's compositional, and of course instrumental skills, are on full display. The double CD consists of a disc of the long standing Simple Trio, which is Webber on tenor saxophone and flute, Matt Mitchell on piano, and John Hollenbeck on drums, while disc two is a 12-piece ensemble plus conductor (see all names below). The title 'Idiom' refers to a book of Webber's compositions that stem from extended woodwind techniques. Of course, the term 'extended techniques' is a bit fuzzy, and my own definition is even fuzzier -- I hear it as meaning approaching any given instrument a bit outside of the 'normal' range of playing, but defining 'normal' range becomes harder and harder for me the more I hear! The actual techniques that Webber uses are given some explanation here, however, what I can say is that they are so integral to the music's creation that it all feels quite natural, and both groups offer their own enjoyable interpretations of this complex, yet accessible, music.

The Simple Trio disc

'Idiom I' begins with what could a bit of a nerve-frying circular phrase, however the pitch change after some number of repetitions, along with Mitchell's precise counter point, it instead becomes a gripping introduction to a tune that itself is a fascinating set of interlocking phrases. As the tune progresses and Hollenbeck's drumming, every bit as exact as the piano, provides a eddies of rhythm for Webber to unspool farther and farther from the original concept. Even when the others drop out and Mitchell along carries the tune, the concentric momentum remains fully intact.

'Idiom IV' is next an is introduced by the piano alone. The music is spacious, a series of quiet events rather than a flowing piece, but when Webber joins in on tenor sax, it is somewhat jarring. They soon move into a rhythmically-jerky section with highly syncopated, moving parts. Sometimes Webber is overblowing the sax, just a bit, adding some fuzziness to the edges of the tone. 'Forgotten Best,' likely not a part of the Idiom series, unless you take the name literally, is also different than the other two pieces described so far. Mitchell's part is more flowing, with lush chords and romantic sweeps of sound, while Hollenbeck's expressive use of the cymbals cradles Webber's arcing melody. The intensity that the group builds to, coupled with a certain sentimentality, is invigorating.

The other tracks are solidly in the Idiom book, numbers V and III respectively. They are thematically similar to the first two tracks in their angularity and compositional techniques. The closer, 'Idiom III,' is a powerful one, all three instruments intensely interlocked on Webber's compositional ideas. In the end, the album is a little bit nerve frying, but in an utterly animating way.

The Large Ensemble disc

I recently read in an piece in which Webber discussed the recording process and how the large ensemble recorded the complex charts sometimes only several bars at a time, much like modern classical music. Listening to the the opening of moments of 'Idiom VI''s 'Movement I', where the 12-piece group performs a series exacting musical acrobatics, this makes good practical sense. However, around two-thirds through the track the group loosens up into some arresting improvisations. The first is a long-building, expressive saxophone line that leads to a tough free-blowing session, followed by a hair-raising synthesizer passage from Liz Kosack, which adds an eclectic and electric shimmer to the piece. It closes with a another series of composed and many faceted passages.

This track is followed by 'Interlude,' which is as named, a short piece built on seemingly incidental sounds, however what it leads to, 'Movement II,' is quite a masterstroke. Starting with a slightly arrhythmic beat and a lively melody from the flute that travels up an down the octaves, it is interspersed with film-noir like comps and fills from the orchestra. Next, a colorful expansion of the various tonal pallets starts stacking up, their shapes not exactly matching, becoming less and less stable until collapsing dramatically. And it is not done yet! 'Interlude II and Movement III' follow, setting up a bit of a pattern. The interlude, quiet and impressionistic, relies on the strings to carry it, along with being accompanied by gentle lines from the trumpet. The piece's movement evolves from the interplay of several of the horns, at first seeming random, until brought together by a series of unison lines and a very distinctive contra-alto clarinet solo from Yuma Uesaka.

Of course the music continues, surprising listeners in all of the best ways: unusual tonal colors, slowly mounting musical apexes, unscripted pleasures, and dazzling compositional structures. These other movements offer moments of challenging tonality and chilling dissonances, all leading to an impressive conclusion. There is enough for the listener to hold onto without feeling ejected into the complete unknown, and more than enough sonic twists to bring the listener back again and again.

Idiom is pretty monumental and highly recommended album that covers a lot of musical ground, and though built around certain (and somewhat mysterious) extended techniques, is a genuinely enjoyable listen that offers the deep listener a treasure trove.


The Large Ensemble is:

Anna Webber - tenor saxophone, flute, bass flute
Nathaniel Morgan - alto saxophone
Yuma Uesaka - tenor saxophone, clarinet, contra-alto clarinet
Adam O’Farrill - trumpet
David Byrd-Marrow - horn
Jacob Garchik - trombone
Erica Dicker - violin
Joanna Mattrey - viola
Mariel Roberts - cello
Liz Kosack - synthesizer
Nick Dunston - bass
Satoshi Takeishi - drums
Eric Wubbels - conductor


Tony Simon said...

I've been waiting to listen to this one -- like saving a nice wine for a special occasion...and that time has arrived! Thanks for the great review to prime my palate -- on to the savoring!

Paul said...

I suspect you'll like it!

MJG said...

Webber gives a very good explanation in the liner notes of what she means by "extended techniques" with respect to these compositions.

Paul said...

Thanks. Added a link to the PI Recordings site to some notes on this.