The Renga Ensemble: The Room Is (2015)

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The Renga Ensemble: The Room Is (2015)

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Release date: February 24, 2015.
Digital album at the Allos Documents Bandcamp site

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Allos Documents is pleased to present the debut recording from James Falzone's Renga Ensemble, handpicked by Falzone, drawing together some of the most diverse and adventurous clarinet and saxophone players working in jazz and improvised music today:

James Falzone: Bb and Eb clarinets
Ken Vandermark: Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone
Keefe Jackson: tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, contra Bb bass clarinet
Jason Stein: bass clarinet
Ben Goldberg: Bb clarinet, contra Eb alto clarinet
Ned Rothenberg: Bb clarinet, alto saxophone

LINER NOTES BY CLIFFORD ALLEN
I. 
I was working as an understudy for Buster Smith, the alto player that Bird loved so much. Buster Smith was my director, and that's where I got most of my stamina for playing the saxophone. It was so frightening standing next to him, because it seemed like the sound was coming up through the ground, up through the bottom of the horn and out through the bell.” –Prince Lasha in conversation with this writer in 2005, published in “Prince Lasha’s Inside-Outside Story” on allaboutjazz.com

The woodwind family is borne of the earth. Though saxophones and clarinets are machines designed to move air and project sound, they channel something much greater than mere breath. Connected to fingers, facial muscles, tongue, neck, arms, torsos, lungs and legs, reeds make a circuitous but definite path to the ground. In multiple, they create an undeniable sense of textural force and can signify as much propulsion as a rhythm section might. One thinks of the great woodwind sections of Ellington, Basie and Kenton, not to mention Sun Ra’s Arkestra or Muhal Richard Abrams’ Experimental Band. Prince Lasha, a flutist, saxophonist and clarinetist, was speaking above to the sound of Texas saxophonists like Booker Ervin, Ornette Coleman and Dewey Redman.

One might extrapolate that Texas sound out of Fort Worth’s sawdust-floored black clubs onto Jimmy Giuffre, a multi-reedman and composer from Dallas who, while on the West Coast and working with Woody Herman’s band, wrote one of the central pieces of saxophone ensemble literature, “Four Brothers.” Knotty and nearly beholden to circular breathing, its tone rows give the reigns to three tenors and baritone and focus the ensemble directly on the front line and the rhythm and interplay of the reeds. Giuffre’s work – which later encompassed free improvisation and a unique, “chamber”-like approach to ensemble orchestration – is one of many influences apparent in the music of Chicago clarinetist and composer James Falzone.

II.
Falzone’s pedigree in the Windy City creative music scene is similarly diverse, encompassing free music as well as exploring sound sources from Benny Goodman (KLANG: Other Doors, Allos Documents 006) to Arabic music (Allos Musica: Lamentations, Allos Documents 005). Employing quartets with vibes, bass and drums as his support, or oud and percussion, or in drummer Tim Daisy’s chamber trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, Falzone has often recorded in smallish and very focused ensembles that, while structurally complex, usually maintained a connection to drum-rhythm. Often Falzone was the only horn, thus putting his bracing tone and attack front and center. As fellow Chi-town reedman/composer Ken Vandermark put it in recent communication, “you can hear it in his facility with the horn, the lines have a nuance and evenness of tone throughout the instrument that is extremely difficult to create – each register on the clarinet almost has a separate personality. James can jump from its lowest note to the top within the same dynamic level.”

Falzone’s latest group is a major point of departure: Renga is a woodwind sextet and joins the Bb and Eb clarinetist with Vandermark (Bb and bass clarinet, baritone saxophone), Keefe Jackson (bass and contrabass clarinet, tenor saxophone), Jason Stein (bass clarinet), Ned Rothenberg (Bb clarinet and alto saxophone), and Ben Goldberg (Bb clarinet and contralto clarinet). Falzone notes “each of these musicians possess a very personal voice, a color, that is expressed through their horn. More than anything, I was interested in seeing how I could work with these voices, blending and contrasting but always creating space for each hue to remain itself. All of the fourteen pieces here are from Falzone’s pen and draw from ancient collaborative haiku, or Renga. There are six “Rengas”, each spotlighting a different player in the sextet and thus brightening the collaborative bond between individual performance and the work as a whole. In formal terms, each line or statement is expanded upon by a subsequent one, creatively overlapping. To extend the disc’s connection to ancient verse, five of the disc’s pieces take their title from a haiku by contemporary American poet Anita Virgil:

    not seeing
    the room is white
    until that red apple

III.
Going back to the “Four Brothers,” improvised woodwind ensembles seem to have taken off with the emergence of free music. Though often thought of as “conservative,” players like Giuffre liberated the artform, avoiding the tendency to hold onto a traditional rhythm section; interestingly, Giuffre recorded an LP of overdubbed tenor compositions for Atlantic called The Four Brothers Sound in 1958. Yet there’s something Chicagoan about total reed music, perhaps with roots in the AACM and its focus on non-traditional combinations of instruments. For example, Anthony Braxton’s 1974 piece (Op. 37) for sopranino, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone led to the formation of the World Saxophone Quartet with David Murray, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett (New York, Fall, 1974, Arista 4032). Of course the reed ensemble wasn’t just a Chicago thing – in California ROVA emerged at the tail end of the ‘70s, and Steve Lacy also had his Saxophone Special group – but it seems to have germinated there. In contemporary terms, Renga fits alongside Keefe Jackson’s Likely So, a new reed septet including Chicago saxophonists Dave Rempis and Mars Williams along with the Polish reedman Wacław Zimpel and Marc Stucki, Peter A. Schmid and Thomas K.J. Meier from Switzerland. A freer and smaller unit exists in Sonore; lifted from the Chicago Tentet’s horn section, the group consists of Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann, and Mats Gustafsson.

An all-reed ensemble requires a total sonic commitment that’s quite set apart from other instrumental forms. As Jackson puts it, “this context is different from the usual in the sense that since the band is full of other reed players, while improvising you must start from a higher level – the basic 'saxophone' or 'clarinet' things have already been stated and stated and stated on every song, so you have to find another way to make the music count, every note, and also to take it somewhere. It makes you work harder.” Falzone and Jackson have worked together since the clarinetist’s return to Chicago, including compositional workshops and Jackson’s Project Project orchestra (Just Like This, Delmark 580, 2008). But just as Renga’s specific instrumental relationships make the music a challenge unlike any other, it’s important to look at this work within the arc of James Falzone the composer. The rhythm writing, choppy and globular yet able to maintain a thin and bubbly quality, are distinctly Falzone-ian and one could imagine Keefe Jackson’s tenor or Ken Vandermark’s baritone occupying a role similar to vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz or bassist Jason Roebke in KLANG.

IV.
While seeing this outfit within the breadth of a composer’s work helps to understand the way in which ideas feed one another and create a picture, it’s important to note that Renga, like any improvised music ensemble, is a sum of its parts and musicians are chosen for their individual approaches. Falzone brought in three peers from the Chicago scene (Vandermark, Jackson, and Stein) and two players he had not worked with (Rothenberg and Goldberg, from New York and the Bay Area respectively) but was fascinated by. So each node in Falzone’s Renga – or each line – was painstakingly applied from firsthand experience and genuine, personal curiosity. Renga was designed to challenge players in their sense of instrumental possibilities, and part of that challenge comes from exploring collaboration between distinct artistic practices. It is decidedly different music once a new personality enters the fray, regardless of their chosen axe. “Four Brothers” was written with Serge Chaloff, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward in mind, and would’ve sounded vastly different with Coleman Hawkins or Russell Procope.

Turning to the penultimate piece, “That Red Apple,” it may be worth a relook at Jimmy Giuffre and how swing is distilled into pure sound and graceful movement. The clarinets display knotty swagger, Goldberg burrowing in for the first solo with an approach that’s lush and grounded; gradually players peel off in pointillist duets and incisive motion. A fragment of trilling modernist fanfare emerges, orchestral elision with a set of growls and buttery pecks. In this music, Falzone embraces both textural interplay and arrangements that hold fast and remain roomy. Dusty footfalls sashay and wink in the direction of the past, though these six players remain steadfastly present. Taut riffage bolsters Rothenberg’s heel-digging alto and Stein’s mouthy bass clarinet on “Not Seeing,” yet the ensemble’s shimmy unfolds in a reflective, elongated manner.

There is a wealth of tonal information and gutsy feeling in each of these pieces, yet the music of Renga is never all-at-once. As with many advanced or simply excellent records, its secrets are both revealed gradually and plainly in view. The Room Is hinges on:

    sound coming up
    the ground and . . .
    the bottom of the horn

Clifford Allen
Brooklyn, December 2014


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TRACK LISTING
1. Prelude
2. Not Seeing
3. The First Renga (Ben)
4. The Fourth Renga (Ken)
5. The Room Is
6. Interlude
7. White
8. The Third Renga (Keefe)
9. The Fourth Renga (Ned)
10. Until
11. The Fifth Renga (James)
12. The Sixth Renga (Jason)
13. That Red Apple
14. Postlude

All compositions by James Falzone (Allos Documents/ASCAP) except Prelude, Interlude, and Postlude, which are improvisations. 

CREDITS
Recorded April 12, 2013 at Electrical Audio in Chicago
Engineered by Greg Norman
Mixed by James Falzone and Greg Norman
Mastering by Jason Ward at Chicago Mastering
Design by Johnathan Crawford
All photos of The Renga Ensemble by David Sampson

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Many thanks to Ken, Jason, Keefe, Ben, and Ned for their great spirits and incredible musicianship bringing this music to fruition. Additional thanks to the team who helped put the record together including Greg Norman, Jason Ward, and Johnathan Crawford. Additional thanks to Dave Rempis, Mitch Cocanig, Jack Mclarnan, Kate Dumbleton, and John Corbett for presenting Renga and individual members in spring 2013. 

REVIEWS

a careful, bracing, provocative album.
— Ben Ratliff, The New York Times
“The clarinetist embraces Duke Ellington’s famous practice of composing specifically for the individual members of his ensemble . . a seamless tapestry of astringent timbre, mournful melody, and elegant shapes. Falzone has explored diverse styles over the last decade, but this project ties them together with fluidity and poise while still balancing on a razor’s edge.”
— Peter Margasak, The Chicago Reader
The harmonic and contrapuntal possibilities that these musicians explore seem practically limitless, six lines sometimes darting and dodging away from one another, sometimes forming a soft-spoken euphony. The music proves experimental, extraordinarily subtle and utterly unpredictable.
— Howard Reich, The Chicago Tribune
Ultimately, The Room Is’ multifaceted journey remains true to its intriguing concept throughout, building upon and embellishing its earliest movements, deriving something new, and — as James Falzone sees jazz itself — pushing ever forward from roots in an ancient past toward an open future.
— Michael Nastos, Allmusic
This CD is the most pleasure you can get legally in 2015. It’s wonderful music from one of our most ingenious composers: James Falzone’s settings for a clarinet sextet, restless music full of creative energy.
— John Litweiler, Point of Departure
James Falzone’s “The Room Is” functions on many levels, but unity and diversity govern them all in near perfect balance, in both sonic and aesthetic terms. Here, as with Duke Ellington or Bill Dixon’s pioneering works, we have the perfect symbiosis of musical and poetic impulses in compositions that encapsulate multiple eras while carving out a space for themselves outside of any one epoch. This is Falzone’s boldest statement to date.
— Marc Medwin, Dusted
The Room Is is a gorgeous album, and it is music that requires repeated listening.
— Paul Acquaro, Free Jazz Blog