Ensemble 5 Explores the Collective Mind

Geisser001

THE COLLECTIVE MIND Vol. 2 / GEISSER-BLUMER-STAUB-MORGENTHALER: Peacock Dance. Trompe l’oeil. What If? No Bones About It. 4+1. Coco. Blue-Shifted / Ensemble 5: Robert Morgenthaler, tb; Reto Staub, pno; Fridolin Blumer, bs; Heinz Geisser, perc / Leo Records LR864

The promo sheet for this release claims that, “Unlike similar experimental improve unites, the artists project a holistic schema, where polytonal shadings, bopping pulses, fragmented sub-themes and super-speed flurries present numerous propositions that morph into a force field, composed of variable angles and shapes.”

WOW! Who woulda thunk it?!? All that in just one CD? Lucky, lucky me!

Translated into English—and by the way, just an FYI, the word “holistic” was invented by a South African official in the 1920s as a fancy way of saying that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—is that the music on this disc is integrated music rather than just a blowing session. See how easy that was to understand?

You wouldn’t suspect this, however, from the opening of Peacock Dance with its sputtering low-range trombone and atonal piano splashes, backed by drumming that seems to be in its own world. In fact, even I had a hard time believing it, though I found the music fascinating in its own right; it just doesn’t sound integrated but rather just like an open-end blowing session. In Trompe l’oeil, one hears pianist Reto Staub playing a fairly nice collection of notes (not quite a melody) with occasional, light interjections from the drums and trombone, muted this time and playing in its high register with alternating low notes on open horn. Again, I found the music interesting and listened carefully to its progression without hearing a “holistic” approach. I mean, after all, they are a jazz ensemble. One wouldn’t think that they’d play anything without at least trying to sound integrated, mai oui?

Things take a turn for the weird in What If?, a piece that begins with jumbled-sounding percussion and muffled groans (from Geisser)?) while the piano ruminates quietly in the background. It almost sounds as if he were an escape artist tied up in a straight jacket who can’t get loose, and is cursing under his breath about it. One also hears what sounds like paper being rattled, occasional chimes, and a few burps from the trombone as it wends its way along. We even hear a few bowed bass notes. But mostly lots of banging and moaning. Hey, stop that dancin’ up there!

We return to some semblance of a jazz beat in No Bones About It, which sounds like an extension of Peacock Dance: low trombone grumbles, asymmetric percussion, and interspersions from the piano and bass. They do create some interesting patterns, though the music is so abstract that it makes Cecil Taylor sound like Hazel Scott. At the 6:45 mark, trombonist Morgenthaler actually plays a snippet of melody that makes him sound a little like Tommy Dorsey, and he plays even more like this after 7:24. Amazing!

Indeed, as the CD went on, I became more and more engrossed in what they were doing without trying to analyze it as music, for this is music without any real form. Yes, it’s “ordered sound” in the sense that humans are playing it, but in a way it resembles a band that is warming up, but doing so in a way that sounds interesting. I cannot claim that there is order in Ensemble 5’s planned chaos, and yes, planned chaos is a much better description of their work, but its disorder is extremely interesting. It never really goes anywhere; it just starts out of nowhere and stops the same way; but as long as it is happening, one is somehow involved in the process. It’s almost as if Ensemble 5 were daring you to make something coherent out of this, yet although none of it is sensible in the classic definition of that word it is interesting as examples of different ways of creating planned chaos. In that respect, the album is quite interesting.

Thus I recommend it in that sense with the above caveats. If you open your mind and just let it pass through without trying to analyze or judge it, you’ll find it interesting. I was particularly fascinated by Coco, which consists of a few isolated trombone and bass notes with isolated drum beats, between which there is a lot of silence. This is almost a Zen-like piece, and its quiet nature makes a very effective contrast with the other, much busier tracks on the disc.

With the last track, Blue-Shifted, we return to Ensemble 5’s usual pattern of playing with similar results to the other tracks. By and large, then, an interesting disc for those who can follow this sort of music and are not offended or confused by it. They certainly have their own approach!

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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