Monday, February 1, 2010

The Empty Cage Quartet

The Empty Cage Quartet often gives equal play to all four of its members in the heady mix of their new CD Gravity (Clean Feed). Jason Mears (alto and clarinet), Kris Tiner (trumpet), Ivan Johnson (double bass) and Paul Kikuchi (drums and percussion) have plenty to say musically and they do so by kicking into improvisational variations on two thematic constructs, "Gravity" and "Tzolkien," alternatingly through the program.

This is avant-free improvisation with a kind of classic ring to it. It takes as its starting point the tradition coming out of Ornette's early work and the NY Contemporary Five, among others, and yet they can go far beyond that starting point into rarified collective ensemble territory. Plus each player has his own stylistic take on the music. Kikuchi can play free time or tempoed passages with inventiveness and Johnson's bass never coasts on the free cliches available. Mears and Tiner make for a formidable two-man front line and impress much for how they interpret worked out passages and extend them with two-way dialogues. The "written" and the improvised balance together seamlessly and avoid the head-solo-head schemata so ingrained in much of the music.

This is performance art of the first rank. If these folks were part of the plastic-visual arts scene, their leave-behinds would probably be selling for lots of money. In the world of musical improvisation, such things don't ordinarily happen. The good news is you can buy this CD at the usual going rate. It's an "original" no less. As listeners this should make us happy. At any rate Gravity has that effect on me!

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