Dana Saul on the Ceiling

Ceiling - Dana Saul (Cover)

CEILING / SAUL: Reflection in a Moving Surface. Ceiling. a living dream. Frieze. Luminescent Shadows / Adam O’Farrill, tpt; Kevin Sun, t-sax; Patricia Brennan, vib; Dana Saul, pno; Walter Stinson, bs; Matthew Honor, dm / Endectomorph Music, no number

Every so often, I get a jazz CD for review that surpasses all my expectations and reaches what I refer to as the “WOW! factor.”

This is one such release.

Pianist Dana Saul, a composer-improviser who has studied both jazz and 20th century classical music, presents us here with his debut disc as a leader. As quoted from the press release accompanying this set, Saul “rejected most of my initial notions of what I wanted to do with the group and honed in on a limited set of musical obsessions,” rejecting traditional jazz scoring for a sextet and what the release calls “an obligatory variety of mood and tempos, embracing instead contrapuntal texture over individual melodies as well as long periods of defined harmonic spaces in place of harmonically saturated progressions.”

Translated into non-geek English, what this means is that Saul has written “jazz” music that follows the patterns of such avant-garde classical composers as György Ligeti more than a standard set of changes, no matter how innovative those changes are, in others’ work.

This is clear in the very opening of the first track, Reflection in a Moving Surface, where the trumpet and tenor saxophone play repeated staccato figures a half-beat apart from one another, which makes the music sound more complex than each line really is. Eventually the ball is passed to the piano and vibes, who play their own contrary-motion figures, until the tempo decreases and vibist Patricia Brennan plays a beautiful solo in which she explores whole tones and chromatics, which then leads to Saul on piano playing a repeated minimalist figure, joined a few bars later by bassist Walter Stinson who creates a simply miraculous solo around him. This is musical creation on an extraordinarily high level; no concessions to popular taste are made. When the trumpet and sax return, they are playing less busy but equally fascinating little motifs that dovetail in with what Saul is doing. Eventually the trumpet appears to be playing an improvisation, but again with the sax playing harmony beneath him from time to time. The music creates a hypnotic effect that is simply beyond words. The vibes also return, now playing double-time figures against what the others are playing. Eventually Saul’s piano takes over from Brennan as the music suddenly stops.

Ceiling is a piece that reminded me of the kind of unusual “jazzical” pieces that cellist Fred Katz used to write for the Chico Hamilton Quintet back in the 1950s. Though less complex than Reflection, the music is still layered and the beat uncertain, being constantly broken up by Matthew Honor’s drums. Stinson’s bass is the principal timekeeper in this situation, and the music is primarily ensemble playing with repetitive figures and exploratory harmonies. At one point, the trumpet plays a series of repeated B-flats before falling quiet for a time. Saul evidently prizes structure and cohesion over jamming, which, sad to say, will displease a large number of jazz fans who live and die by solos. I find it utterly fascinating, however. The best way one can describe this, and the other pieces on the album, is that they create complexity out of simplicity. One could take any individual thread of this music, examine it, and find it rather plain, not to mention repetitive, but when the pieces of Saul’s jigsaw puzzles are all put together the effect is extraordinary. Trumpeter Adam O’Farrill (any relation to Chico O’Farrill, I wonder?) does play a quite extraordinary solo on this one, however, which goes outside the chord changes. Saul’s own piano solo is harmonically fluid, but stays more within the parameters set by the structure.

In a living dream, the music is played at a faster tempo and swings a bit more but still maintains complexity in the mixing of various lines. I should also point out that this style of writing seems to me influenced, at least in part, by the work Henry Threadgill has been doing for several decades, though Saul’s application of these principles is entirely his own. O’Farrill has a splendid solo in which his double-tonguing emulates the fluttering sound of the musical line before again becoming outside jazz. Brennan’s vibes dominate the opening choruses before the ball is passed to the pianist, who immediately begins re-shifting the beats within each measure, generally through contraction (one beat or, at times, half-beats), until the listener becomes lost by the very complexity of it all. This is a piece that requires more than one listening to catch all of the subtle changes and shifts within. I should also point out that, although there’s a lot going on in terms of harmony, the basic feel of each piece is within a specific mode or key; the bitonality or atonality felt in each work on this disc normally comes about by the use of subtle inner shifts, not in a wholesale abandonment of at least a basic “feel” of a tonal or modal center.

Frieze is a much slower and quieter piece than any of those preceding it, and in this slower tempo one can hear, and feel, the inside harmonic shifts a bit more easily. This one has a strong Mingus vibe about it which I liked very much; the intersecting lines are not quite as busy albeit still using bitonality and atonality, giving the listener a better chance to hear everything that is going on without feeling too disoriented. I also liked Saul’s wonderful scoring in all of these works. He knows exactly how to use each instrument within the ensemble to create and sustain the specific moods and feelings he wants. When the trumpet and tenor sax return around the 5:00 mark, they play figures that reminded me a bit of Mingus and also a bit of Ornette Coleman—again, without imitating either jazz composer.

In the closer, Luminescent Shadows, Saul surprises us by using a Latin beat behind his complex, moving lines. This one has a B-flat minor feel that is maintained despite the trumpet and tenor playing lines that leaned more towards F major. O’Farrill contributed another splendid solo on this one, in fact more extroverted and swinging than his previous ones, and surprise, surprise, tenor saxist Kevin Sun also got a chance to shine with a good, Sonny Rollins-inspired solo of his own. But once again, it was the ensemble that dominated; following Sun’s solo is yet another extraordinary passage in which Saul uses his forces in ensemble, towards the end exploding open in another Mingus-like moment as the bass and drums suddenly double the tempo behind them.

This is yet another extraordinary jazz album, the kind of disc that makes up for all the lounge singers and pianists I am often asked to review.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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