George Lewis/Ensemble Dal Niente

Assemblage
New World Records 80792

Refusing to limit his musical identity to that of an academic or an improviser, from time to time trombonist George Lewis operates as an arm’s length composer in the traditional Eurocentric form. The four thought-provoking performances here are part of that trope. Rather than expressing his ideas as a performer as he frequently does elsewhere, Lewis passed his scores onto the Chicago-based Ensemble Dal Niente. Using various subsets of the group it’s the members’ interpretations that are outlined on disc as if the group was dealing with notated music from many other composers.

The difference is that like others of his peers such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Leroy Jenkins, who have been involved in similar situations, the shape of the performances reflects Lewis’ experience as more than a score writer; plus there is no improvising in these compositions, written between 2012 and 2014. However since it is a contemporary music ensemble, Dal Niente understands the challenges of improvisation and brings those concepts forward when playing these immutable scores.

Most striking is how “The Mangle of Practice” is treated by violinist Minghuan Xu and pianist Winston Choi. Stripped down to its essence so that the solid properties of the wound steel and catgut that make up the instruments’ strings is as present as the sounds produced on them, the two explore pitch limits with a combination of flying spiccato strings and scurrying keyboard slides. Even in the mid-section more formal than either extremity, the shill, dog-whistle-like explorations continue with spectacular violin sweeps matched by percussive echoes from the piano’s innards. In quintet, septet or nonet form the sonic possibilities of these pieces are more varied however. “Hexis”, for instance, could be a subtly intimidating film soundtrack, as strings jeremiads plus reed smears echo alongside resonating drum thwacks while the piano strides the theme onwards. Reaching a crescendo of tremolo strings, cymbal sizzles and vibraphone echoes the narrative adumbrates an ending tougher than the introduction, with exaggerated keyboard clunks, wood block smacks and dyspeptic reed whooshes. Paradoxically the introduction of jittery harp glissandi to the final “Assemblage” assembles an interface that become steadily darker, more atonal and strained as all nine instruments are brought into play. With gaunt pinpricks from the three-piece string section in contrapuntal opposition, the remaining sections widen to encompass thickened backing the while the pianist picks out a simple melody.

Proof if any more is needed of Lewis’ capability as a notated composer, the CD is admirable, but lacks the heady sense of the unexpected that arises when Lewis is also an improvising participant.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Mnemosis 2. Hexis 3. The Mangle of Practice 4. Assemblage

Personnel: Katie Schoepflin (clarinet); Talmur Sullivan (alto saxophone); Emma Hospelhorn (flute); Winston Choi, Mabel Kwan (piano); Minghuan Xu, Tarn Travers (violin); Ammie Brod (viola); Chris Wild (cello); Ben Melsky (harp); John Corkill, Gregory Beyer (percussion); Michael Lewanski (conductor); George Lewis (composer