Ethan Ardelli Discovers “The Island of Form”

Ethan Ardelli - The Island of Form - Cover Art

THE ISLAND OF FORM / ARDELLI: Agua. Les Calanques. The Serpentine Path. 5:55 a.m. Dunraven. Thanks for Something. Shangri-La Pearl / Luis Deniz, a-sax; Chris Donnelly, pno; Devon Henderson, bs; Ethan Ardelli, dm / Toronto Arts Council, no number

It has suddenly struck me how many jazz combos nowadays, particularly the ones I like most, seem to be led by Drummers: Matt Wilson, Ernesto Cervini, Devin Gray and, here, Ethan Ardelli. This is a far cry from the past, when usually the only drummer-leaders were really famous names like Max Roach, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones and Buddy Rich. When a former sideman-drummer eventually led a group, as Joe Morello did, it didn’t gain much traction and didn’t make recordings. Just a thought.

In the publicity sheet, Ardelli is noted for being “a cultural omnivore,” seeking out inspiration from a wide musical spectrum, “from foreign and art films to classical composition and music from around the world – in particular the music of Cuba.” Yet his Cuban influence is clearly filtered through his strong grounding in formal composition, which is all to the better. Ardelli’s music has form and structure; it says something; and it goes wherever his muse, and the muses of his talented bandmates, lead him.

In this, his debut CD, Ardelli gives us a fine mixture of influences, to which I might suggest also includes the music of Charles Mingus, another eclectic composer who constantly combined classical form with jazz orchestration. There are moments when alto saxist Luis Deniz goes out on limbs that he can’t quite climb back onto the tree from, so he just stops, but at least he has the good sense to do that. Pianist Donnelly seems to be a somewhat cool player with a good sense of structure, which counterbalances Deniz, while Ardelli—like the drummer-leaders mentioned in the first paragraph—pushes the rhythmic envelope with complex rhythms and patterns that underscore his quartet’s playing. It’s a good mixture.

Ardelli also has a fine ear for programming, contrasting somewhat uptempo pieces like the opening Agua with the slow, suspenseful Les Calanques, to good effect. In the latter, Donnelly’s gentle piano opens the proceedings, following which Deniz plays a lyrical, gentle theme above him while bassist Henderson fills in and Ardelli plays cymbal washes in the background. But the piece continues to accelerate in tempo, become louder and busier, bringing us to an ecstatic close.

Accretion starts out with Henderson playing alone, after which the leader falls in behind him and they again pursue a slow 4. Donnelly’s piano includes some enticing Monk-like chords, and indeed the ensuing melody also has a Thelonious sound about it. And once again, there is a gradual increase in tempo and intensity, built up largely through Deniz’ excellent solo. The Monk influence continues in the theme’s development as well. This is interesting music!

The Serpentine Path has a gentle, almost Bill Evans-like sound about it, except that its shifting rhythms and more chromatic harmonies are rather different from most (but not all) Evans pieces. Donnelly’s rich, deep-in-the-keys chords dominate a full chorus before Deniz comes in with a fine, sparse alto solo. When Donnelly returns, his playing is also sparse. This is the kind of “soft jazz” I enjoy: music with structure and feeling, not the drippy lounge stuff that seems to be dominating the landscape of late.

5:55 a.m. opens with a drum solo by the leader, quite busy in places, but eventually becomes a fairly lyrical piece in a medium-slow tempo. Once again, the tempo slowly increases as the music becomes more complex. By contrast, Thanks for Something is a fairly busy piece, again with some Monk influence (but less than in Accretion), while the finale, Shangri-La Pearl, again takes us into subtler realms, but again accelerates and becomes more emotional, using exotic chords. The only thing I didn’t like was the fade-out ending.

Otherwise, this is a tremendously interesting first CD from an immensely talented group.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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