Luzia von Wyl is “Throwing Coins”

Von Wyl001

THROWING COINS / VON WYL: Chromatika. Q. Akumal. Solifati. Wasps. Antumbra. Chromatika II. Spark / Luzia von Wyl, pno; Vincent Millioud, vln; Jonas Iten, cello; Amin Mokdad, Andrea Loetscher, fl; Nicola Katz, cl; Lukas Roos, bs-cl; Maurus Conte, bsn; Raphael Christen, marimba; André Pousaz, bs; Lionel Friedli, dm / hatOLOGY 753

This was my first exposure to composer-pianist Luzia von Wyl, and I was appropriately impressed. Her music, though essentially classical-inspired jazz, almost defies classification. The music moves not only in odd meters, but also in odd harmonies, shifting not up or down but sideways, as did the unusual music of the late Herbie Nichols. But von Wyl’s music does not remind me so much of Nichols as it does of Charles Mingus, had Mingus written more jazz works for what is, on paper, an essentially classical band. Look at the lineup: not a single trumpet, trombone or saxophone in sight, though the bass clarinet has been a jazz instrument since the days of Eric Dolphy, and bassist André Pousaz plays in a jazz manner.

One can easily get lost in von Wyl’s music if one is not paying close attention, but that’s OK. She clearly knows what she is doing, and what she is doing is exceptional and brilliant. The compositions have an edge, yet that edge is slightly sanded down by the use of classical strings and winds. The Mingus recordings this most reminded me of were the ones he made for his own label, Debut Records, around 1954, the Mingus Dynasty album for Columbia, and a later Columbia album, Let My Children Hear Music. And yet there are elements in here of Stéphane Grappelli (the swinging violin solo in Q) as well as an ensemble blend that  leans in the direction of the kind of things Mitch Miller and especially Alec Wilder were doing in the late 1930s (even Mingus had his forebears, you know).

Despite the allusions I noted above, and others that cropped up in various pieces while listening, von Wyl’s aesthetic is very much her own. She may remind you of things done in the past, but in the end she sounds like no one else. I find her music far more complex than Carla Bley, for instance, but since it doesn’t swing as hard I doubt that von Wyl will overtake Bley in popularity. At times it is positively witty, as for instance the bass clarinet-marimba-piano passage in Akumal. By using all the instruments at her disposal in ever-shifting mixes and blends, von Wyl keeps the listener on the edge of his or her seat. Absolutely nothing she does is formulaic, yet it all makes sense and falls into its own patterns. Extended solos are rare, but there is an amazing bass clarinet solo in Akumal that fits the surrounding material very well.

Moreover, every piece has its own character and profile. Von Wyl avoids the trap of writing every piece in one style, or at best, two styles. Solifati, for instance, is tonal and playful for the most part, albeit with chromatic and whole-tone passages thrown in for fun. She also uses a variety of rhythms, which further entices listeners, keeping them on their toes. In the middle of this piece, all hell breaks loose, musically speaking, as if the band were falling apart—a bit of a Willem Breuker moment, you might say. A misguided critic for The Guardian completely misses the mark of what she has achieved here, calling her music “Zappa-esque” (Frank Zappa’s classical attempts were loud and noisy, based on the music of his idol, Edgard Varèse), “tricksy” and “episodic.” They are neither tricksy nor episodic. They are brilliant. Far too brilliant for the Guardian critic to even attempt to describe technically, I might add. Antumbra uses a slow Middle Eastern rhythm, much like some pieces by Duke Ellington or the John Kirby Sextet, but once again von Wyl shifts gears at one point to a more static but also more conventional rhythm for a few bars and, later, alternates fast and slow passages in a fascinating manner. The opening of Chromatika II uses weird, wailing figures played high up in the violin’s top range, leading into an amorphous chorus in which von Wyl plays piano chords before going into a slow-moving chorus with bowed bass drones and prominent drums. Oh, I guess this is some of what The Guardian thinks “tricksy” and “episodic.” But when a stodgy classical composer of the past suddenly stops an “Allegro” in the middle to slow things down and throw in superfluous folderol, that’s genius, right?

Yes, this CD is clearly a work of genius in my view. Whether or not it will sell to a jazz audience despite its not being hard-hitting is conjecture, but this is one I’ll be listening to several more times in the future. Highly recommended.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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