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Monday, February 26, 2024

Kate Gentile - Drummer-Composer Goes for Broke

Kate Gentile & International Contemporary Ensemble - b i o m e i.i (Obliquity Records, 2023)

Andrew Smiley & Kate Gentile - Flagrances (Obliquity Records, 2023)

Kate Gentile - Find Letter X (Pi Recordings, 2023)

By Lee Rice Epstein

Earlier in 2023, drummer/composer Kate Gentile kicked off her and pianist Matt Mitchell’s new independent label Obliquity Records with two remarkable releases, one a chamber symphony for the International Contemporary Ensemble—flutist Isabel Lepanto Gleicher, clarinetist Joshua Rubin, bassoonist Rebekah Heller, violinist Jennifer Curtis, pianist Cory Smythe, percussionist and vibraphonist Ross Karre, and Gentile on drums and percussion—the other an improvised duet with Gentile and guitarist Andrew Smiley. Later, Pi Records then dropped what is, to date, her magnum opus, a three-volume book of compositions for the quartet Find Letter X, with Mitchell, bassist Kim Cass, and reeds player Jeremy Viner.

The opportunity to have of b i o m e i,i, Flagrances,and Find Letter X all at once are a perfect platform for digging into what sets Gentile apart. In short, there are extremely few composers who are pushing themselves to such engagingly rich, abstract spaces. The touchstones are all there in the music—as well as other coverage—prog, metal, swing, blues, bop, free improvisation, through composed material; there’s a thrilling density to Gentile’s music, delivering on all the above with humor, wit, and, often, yearning. If b i o m e i.i is the chamber symphony, Find Letter X is the symphony, in three discs in the place of three movements.


International Contemporary Ensemble dazzles right from the opening of  “drobe,” with its slowly building waves of trills and bell-like percussion. Classifying b i o m e i.i as a chamber symphony may be slightly, but unintentionally, deceiving. Unlike canonical chamber symphonies, b i o m e i.i clocks in at nearly an hour, with 13 distinct movements. The piece, however, is scored for chamber ensemble of seven players, and Gentile crafts striking, resonant lines. Throughout, Rubin and Heller harmonize expertly, with Karre and Gentile play winding percussion lines across the entire composition.

Flagrances presents a suite-like set of improvisations from Gentile and Smiley. A combination of songs assembled in post-production and duets composed in realtime, the music is rich and evocative, as Smiley’s guitar occasionally skitters, weeps, and snarls. Longer tracks, like “Shrinking Games,” “Ingrained Deviance,” and “Grousing In Turn” show Gentile’s knack for creating billowing clouds of sound.

And then there’s Find Letter X, a monumental achievement in a year of them. As mentioned above, the quartet of Viner, Mitchell, Cass, and Gentile tackle three discs of music composed especially for this group. Fans of Gentile’s will note the group is similar to her Mannequins quartet, with Cass replacing Adam Hopkins. The music feels markedly different, as evidenced by the tense clusters on “laugh magic,” which opens the first disc, after the brief throat-clearing “pulse capsule.” Much like “trapezoidal nirvana” from Mannequins or “stretch goal” from Mitchell’s own Phalanx Ambassadors, the extended soloing and addictive melody of “laugh magic” invites listeners in for a fantastic ride. Later, on the lyrical ballad “subsurface,” Cass slips into something like a Ray Brown mood, while Viner channels John Carter and Mitchell plays a series of delicate, angular chord structures. Gentile’s compositional fearlessness pushes the players right to the edge, and it’s amazing hearing how far they stretch out. Where disc one highlights the band’s acoustic chops, discs two flips to a more overtly electric mode, and disc three presents the band finding a kind of settled balance between the two. Fans of Tony Williams Lifetime and Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society will especially love discs two and three. The band absolutely rips; give a listen to the epic “raze” or “open epoch,” both of which feature brilliantly turbulent rhythms and from Cass and Gentile. Throughout all three volumes, motifs seem to recur, like resonant, novelistic symbols. Certain tonal clusters and refracted melodic lines call you back—for example, I’ve listened to the full set five or six times through, some individual tracks upwards or 10 or 12 times. A surefire classic.


Flake said...

This sounds sick! :-D Gentile is a boss.

Richard said...

Delighted to see Kate Gentile get this attention. biomei.i was my album of the year last year.