The Ken Thomson Sextet in Their Little Red Wagon


LIGETI: Passacaglia Ungherese (arr. Thomson). THOMSON: Misery is the New Hope. Icebreaker. Resolve. Helpless. Turn Around. Phantom Vibrations Syndrome / Ken Thomson Sextet: Russ Johnson, tpt; Alan Ferber, tb; Ken Thomson, a-sax; Anna Webber, t-sax; Adam Armstrong, bs; Daniel Dor, dm / New Focus/Panoramic Recordings PAN09

This very odd album came my way in even stranger packaging: an oversized ( 7 1/8” X 7 1/8”) cardboard sleeve, in which was contained, in a little cardboard pocket, the CD. And despite the rather large size of the fold-over container, there were absolutely no liner notes. I looked inside the open portion of the sleeve and only found a little business card which thanked me for buying the CD and offering me a free digital download of this very same album. As Alice said in Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser!” On the artist’s website, it says this recording is scheduled for release on September 7.

Whatever the rationale behind the oversized booklet and its lack of information, his website bio describes him as “a staple of New York City’s contemporary music and jazz communities,” which probably explains such depressing titles on this disc as Misery is the New Hope and Helpless (funny, those of us here in the Midwest don’t feel helpless or miserable at all, in fact we’re pretty happy folk). But I was surprised to discover that he is part of the Bang on a Can group, because their music, to my ears, is noisy and obnoxious while Thomson’s is utterly brilliant and attractive. In fact, I would deem this one of the jazz finds of the year, on the high level of the Alchemy Sound Project and Jungsu Choi’s Tiny Orkester. As one might expect, Thomson’s arrangement of György Ligeti’s Passacaglia Ungherese walks a tightrope between jazz and classical feeling, but what really impressed me was his highly imaginative scoring. Thomson doesn’t just use his sextet in the conventional jazz manner, but rather has them play in counterpoint against each other like a classical sextet, only with jazz swing and feeling, and this aesthetic carries over into the original compositions. Even more impressively, all of Thomson’s players are extraordinarily inventive improvisers, taking risks while actually creating little compositions within their solos that relate to the surrounding material, and even when he has them play canons or rounds, there is constant invention going on. In Icebreaker, Thomson adds backbeat handclapping against the constantly-moving melodic line played by the two saxes, with rhythmic punctuation by the two brass instruments. Like the late Rod Levitt or Charles Mingus, Thomson has discovered the secret of making a sextet almost sound like a full orchestra. Alan Ferber’s staccato trombone solo sounded to me like a modern equivalent of Miff Mole’s brilliant playing in the late 1920s, with its interesting intervallic leaps and harmonic daring, and no matter where you are in any given track of this outstanding album, your attention never flags. For me, that’s the surest mark of a great recording.

In my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond (see link at the bottom of this review), I ended my fairly exhaustive survey of the intersection between classical music and jazz by saying that, for me, the best future of art music in the new millennium would be a continual mixture of both because they need each other in order to keep invention alive without resorting to modern clichés to replace the old clichés in either genre. I receive many jazz and classical albums for consideration to review, but pass on a great many of the former because they seem to be more interested in recycling older jazz ideas from the 1950s through the early ‘70s without adding a single new idea to the mix. Here, even in a jazz ballad like Resolve, which is somewhat more conventional than the first three tracks, Thomson manages to morph the music as it goes along, adding contrasting themes in different rhythms and again using counterpoint to enliven the ensemble. At about the midway point, the tempo doubles, Thomson plays a busy figure on the alto, Webber plays an opposing theme on tenor, and then the brass joins them for a happy little fugue (more precisely, a fugue played by the two reeds while the two brass play slower figures underneath them) before moving into the improvised sections. Thomson’s group lives on the edge of “free jazz” but never immerses itself in it because their musical ideas are too tightly constructed and the direction of the music more concerned with development and structure than musical anarchy. Even when the rest of the band falls away and all you hear is Thomson on alto with Adam Armstrong’s bass propelling him (with occasional little comments from Daniel Dor on drums), the music continually develops in forward-moving patterns. As I said, this is almost on the high level of Levitt or Mingus.

Helpless begins with a dolorous solo trumpet, the two saxes interweaving fluttery little figures around it (the trumpet tune almost sounds like something Aaron Copland would have written), which goes on for some time. Eventually, the saxes play a little riff in thirds with bass and drum accents while the trumpet interjects in the spaces between their notes. The bass becomes slowly and subtly more active as underpinning, nudging the music gently forward with a jazz pulse, while the trumpet takes over the lead, crafting an improvised solo while the saxes’ interjections become more minimal. Then the swirling, fluttery sax figures return, and bassist Armstrong plays a bowed (arco) solo beneath them and the trumpet tune also returns. This is extraordinary cyclical writing.

Turn Around returns to a sort of stiff-rhythmed melodic line, again with little fugal interludes, before the rhythm section begins to propel them forward as if encouraging them to move on to something else. Armstrong then plays a fine plucked solo, in the second chorus of which the horns and reeds interject new little figures behind him before slowing the tempo down and playing another counterpoint passage. Ferber gets another solo, a bit more in the Jimmy Knepper vein here, while the drums play happy little figures behind him as if glad that the music is finally jumping. After this passage comes to a stop, Thomson begins another little canon, this time with all of the other lead instruments playing an opposing figure in unison behind him.

The finale, Phantom Vibration Syndrome, opens with a little fugal riff by the two brass which is then played above longer-held notes by the tenor sax before the two reeds get into the picture and the opposing figures again morph and change. Then, just as suddenly, we’re in jazz time with Thomson playing a brilliant solo against the bass with occasional cymbal interjections. After a pause, we hear a secondary theme, almost a dirge, played by the four horns sans rhythm section. Thomson plays a busier figure above it, then we move into a series of asymmetric staccato chords by all four horns. Thomson’s little figure then moves us into another counterpoint passage. The little alto figure then becomes a sort of moto perpetuo with the rhythm supporting and, eventually, the others joining him in counter-figures. This is really brilliant composing/arranging.

What a great album this is! Maybe I’ll even give Bang on a Can another listen.

—© 2018 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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