Anna Webber’s Wild Musical Devolutions

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BINARY / WEBBER: Rectangles 2. Impulse Purchase. Rectangles 3a. Rectangles 1b. Underhelmed. Tug O’ War. Rectangles 3b. Binary. Meme. Disintegrate. Rectangles 3c. Rectangles 1a / Simple Trio: Anna Webber, t-sax/fl; Matt Mitchell, pno; John Hollenbeck, dm / Skirl Records 33 (available October 25)

Anna Kristin Webber, born in British Columbia but now living in Brooklyn, has no real biographical information available on her website or in her publicity blurbs. All I know is that “her detail-rich writing recalls the work of elders as disparate as Tim Berne and Henry Threadgill” (Peter Margasak, Chicago Reader) and that each piece on this album began “with a small melodic, rhythmic, harmonic, or purely conceptual starting point. The five ‘Rectangles’ tracks on the album come from the YouTube test channel ‘WebDriver Torso,’ which features ten-second videos of red and blue rectangles set to high-pitched, microtonal sounds” (from her promo blurb).

Whatever their inspiration, the Rectangles pieces are odd, irregular-meter pieces with a distinctly Monk-ish flavor about them, and they pop up between the larger pieces on this album, not so much as a sort of glue as a sort of “intermission feature”—go to the rest room or grab your popcorn while the band is playing these wacky interludes. As a soloist, Webber has a light tone, almost a bit breathy in quality, but her improvisations are not so far out as a great many of her male peers in the avant-garde jazz scene. In Impulse Purchase, pianist Mitchell sprinkles chords through the performance, shifting to single bass notes during Webber’s second solo as drummer Hollenbeck gets into the act. I realize that these pieces are credited to Webber as composer, but in a very real sense, i.e. the way the music strikes the listener, there doesn’t seem to be anything much “composed” in Impulse Purchase but rather merely a series of impromptu phrases thrown out into the ether while they kind of follow each other. Sometimes they get out of their musical mazes; other times, they don’t, so they just stop dead and take another route. Yet it’s an interesting excursion, occasionally using licks and rhythms borrowed from the avant-garde jazz scene of the mid-1960s…this could be an old ESP-Disk. Everything old is new again!

I find it a stretch, however, to associate Webber’s music with that of Henry Threadgill, and for the most part layering is an essential feature of his band’s performances, particularly the overlaying of one rhythm on top of another. Here. Webber and Mitchell—and Hollenbeck, when he is playing—tend to move in the same direction and the same rhythm, elusive as that may be. Again, not a criticism, just an observation. In the middle of Impulse Purchase, for instance, there is an extended lyrical passage where the music becomes ethereal and a bit delicate, and this turns out to be one of the more coherent sections on the album. After Webber’s sax solo, Mitchell takes over, and it sounds as if Hollenbeck is playing lightly on some sort of percussion, possibly just “edging” the cymbals with his sticks to create an almost Chinese percussion effect. Here, it is the pianist who leads the music, and he takes them into rapid, almost Baroque excursions, on which the saxist and drummer eventually overlay an almost R&B-type rhythm. Kooky!

Rectangles 3a sounds like a tape loop of the same rhythmic cell played repeatedly for a minute and a half…time to hit the fridge for a soda. Rectangles 1b consists of light chimes being played (probably by Hollenbeck, since the drums are heard simultaneously) while Webber produces some light spit through her mouthpiece, then begins blowing harder, producing round-robin chromatic triplets in the manner of Coltrane before indulging in some honking and squawking sounds. I tell you, you just can’t beat the old tunes when it comes to good-time fun!

Underhelmed (yes, the spelling is correct, it is not “Underwhelmed”) sounds a bit more like Threadgill than Impulse Purchase, but rhythmically it still sounds like skewed Monk. This is also a somewhat more coherent piece, with the different sections being tied together thematically and thus sounding more like developments of a theme, though the “theme” essentially consists of just three or four notes played repeatedly in different rhythmic patterns. Again, Hollenbeck’s piano is the glue of this collage. Tug O’ War finds Webber on flute instead of tenor sax, in a piece that sounds like the works of your cuckoo clock having some severe problems keeping time. The quirky rhythmic cell slows down in a quirky way, it stutters through for a bit, readjusts itself and somehow takes a licking and keeps on ticking. (Just to show you how strangely my mind works, I was flashing on the old Sid Caesar-Imogene Coca routine about the Bavarian town clock with the moving figures that get all screwed up in their actions as the mainspring wears down and falls apart.) A strange flute-piano duet at the three-minute mark evolves into a trio as the rhythm completely disintegrates into even smaller cells. At times the piano part sounded like my cat walking across my keyboard. (Honestly, I even looked over my shoulder to see if she was on it!) The suggestion of clockwork returns with a triplet figure played by flute and piano, and once again the stutter-step rhythm comes to the fore.

The Devo-like Rectangles 3b follows, after which we hear the title track, Binary. This begins, oddly enough, with soft piano playing, almost in a lyrical vein and in the lower register. Webber plays soft, breathy figures on the tenor sax’s upper register, still in a somewhat lyrical vein though becoming increasingly agitated as the tempo doubles and quadruples. Eventually Webber’s tone becomes more solid and the drums enter, at which point they seem to give up all pretense of following a steady pulse and begin their (by now) familiar deconstruction, including much outside squealing by Webber. Interestingly, Meme almost sounds like one of the Rectangle pieces, out-of-rhythm single-note piano figures with Webber’s flute playing obbligato above it while Hollenbeck intersperses paradiddles on the drums…then it stops in the middle of nowhere.

Strangely, Disintegrate is less amorphous in rhythm than some of the other pieces on this album, but disintegrate it certainly does…though only in stages. Interestingly, at first Rectangles 3c sounded like an extension of Disintegrate. The final track, Rectangles 1c, is the longest of these pieces at three and a half minutes, and to be perfectly honest with you I though that this music “disintegrated” much more than Disintegrate.

The bottom line? I found Binary to be an uneven ride but a fascinating one. Except for the Rectangles pieces, you never quite know where you’re going, and when you got there you didn’t always know where you were, but it’s music like this that stretches the mind and allows it to process and define for itself what is and isn’t valid in musical art. In other words, Binary is a set of intellectual challenges, and I think that every listener will take something different away from it. All I can do is tell you what I took away from it. Mileage may vary!

—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz

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