Jazz Group “Mute” is Anything But

Mute album cover

MUTE / SEOK: Decalomanie. SUN: Articulate Space. Great Concavity. And Now for a Word from Our Sponsors. LI: Follow the Leader. False Idols. Lava. YANG: Are You Happy Now? Palindromania’s Dream / Mute: Kevin Sun, C-sax/cl; Christian Li, pno; Jeonglim Yang, bs; Dayeon Seok, dm / Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT-1019

Before I review this band and their debut CD, a word about the accompanying press release. I wrote a satire of this sort of thing on my blog, but even the satire didn’t go far enough to encompass all the Millennial buzzwords presented here. Dig this, folks:

Mute breaks the jazz quartet mold by prioritizing ensemble dynamics and collective sensitivity over heroic solos and modern jazz conventions. Their self-titled debut, due out December 13 on Fresh Sound New Talent, reveals the fruits of their labor over the past few years, with catchy but off-kilter songs, purposeful group improvisation, and a communal approach to timbre and (a)tonality.

Prioritizing ensemble dynamics?? Umm, folks, jazz musicians have been playing ensemble dynamics since the late 1920s. Read Gunther Schuller’s Early Jazz. You just woke up to that fact? And what exactly is “collective sensitivity”? They all sit around and pet each others’ support animals? “Purposeful group improvisation”? Lots of bands have attempted and accomplished this since the days of Red Nichols and his Five Pennies through Duke Ellington, Eddie Sauter, and even Glenn Miller.

Thank goodness the majority of those who buy this album will just have the liner notes to read…oh, wait a minute, those are in Millennial-speak, too. “The intro shimmers with confidence…It’s archetypal…The intro was our portal into a new space, and crossing over, we hear luminous, interwoven lines…The result is a democratic ethos…” OK, then, just ignore the liner notes and listen to the music. That works for me!

The first thing I heard on the opening track, Decalomanie, was a rock beat. Rock beats don’t belong because, as Roy Eldridge once said, “The jazz beat goes somewhere. A rock beat stays somewhere.” And so we stay in rock mode for a while. The opening lick—it’s not even really a melody—is a minimalist kind of thing that repeats itself a few times. Fortunately, at about the 30-second mark, the rock beat falls away and the C-melody sax, in conjunction with the piano, plays a quirky motif. We return to rock for a while longer, then the quirky motif returns, followed by the saxophone improvising on the opening lick while the piano plays its own improvisation behind it. I say that this is a C-melody saxophone because that’s what it is described as in the liner notes and press sheet, but the sound is more like a tenor to my ears. It sounds absolutely nothing like a C-melody sax as it was played by Frank Trumbauer. The driving theme and the quirky break continue to alternate throughout the piece; except for that, nothing much goes on here.

Much more interesting is Kevin Sun’s Articulate Space, in which the quirky lick from the first piece is used as an underlying, repeated motif. We hear an interesting bowed bass solo by Jeonglim Yang, then the piano lick alters a bit before the clarinet comes in, playing an improvised line above the piano, bass and drums. It’s a quiet piece but not at all romantic or mushy; rather, it’s quite interesting. At about the 3:20 mark, the piano plays its own improvisation, which becomes slowly but surely more intricate as it goes along. The clarinet returns to create its own improvised lines above the rhythm; the piece grows more likeable and interesting.

Follow the Leader is even more interesting, opening with an odd, rhythmic piano lick in 5/4, over which the C-sax comes in playing an atonal melodic line while the cymbals play asymmetric beats in the background. I really loved this piece because of its quirkiness; even after the music becomes more tonal and the beat kind of straightens out, it remains interesting as it suddenly shifts to a Latin rhythm, using a strange change of harmony for the last two bars of each phrase. Christian Li’s piano solo is more aggressive here than on Articulate Space, his single-note lines reminding me of the way Bill Evans played on George Russell’s Jazz in the Space Age LP. The sax solo is much more experimental, particularly harmonically, running up and down the horn with impunity but not with the high-note squeals that too many latter-day saxists seem to think is essential in order to sound modern. Indeed, Sun plays here with a gutsy, almost bluesy feel that I liked very much. At 5:56 he falls away, the piano lick is heard again, and we return to the stiffish rhythm of the opening, only now with the saxophone playing half and whole notes above them. At 7:05 it changes again, the piano moving into double time beneath the saxophone. It ends with a series of blues licks—a real surprise!

Next up is Yang’s Are You Happy Now?, a ballad introduced by the piano. It’s a nice melodic tune, the sort of thing that Bill Evans would have played with his trio—at least until the sax enters at 1:10, playing a warm solo that almost sounds like Coltrane in a ballad mood (I tell you, this is the most tenor-sounding C-melody sax I’ve ever heard). Although I liked it, I found it difficult to reconcile the title with the music, which doesn’t sound particularly happy at all, but rather a bit rueful, even melancholy. Jeonglim Yang plays a nice bass solo, sporting a rich, full tone. In his second solo, Sun does play a few overblown notes, but they’re not too abrasive on the ears.

Great Concavity starts with the piano sprinkling notes while the bass plays some random out-of-tonality notes, followed by the clarinet in its upper range and the bass ruminating beneath them all. This is a really strange free jazz sort of piece which slowly crescendos as the music becomes more layered and complex. Then, suddenly, at 2:53 the band moves into a more tonal and cheerful sort of melody. The music has the feeling of a piece in 3, but it’s not a regular rhythm by any means; then, just as suddenly, the clarinet drops out, the piano plays edgy tremolos, the tempo increases, and the bass and drums work out frantically. At 6:20, the tempo suddenly relaxes again and the beat becomes a bit more normal. A really fine piece of music.

Christian Li’s False Idols is another piece with asymmetric rhythm, this time so complex that I’d have to see the sheet music to tell you what the actual tempo is (I’m sure it includes a fraction). This is the sort of piece that makes you wonder how on earth they managed to improvise on something so rhythmically and harmonically complex without getting lost. It almost sounds like some of those experimental Warren Smith pieces from the late 1960s. At 4:38 we switch rhythmic gears as the piano leads us into a medium-uptempo ride-out.

And Now a Word from Our Sponsors sounds so much like a Monk tune that I had to check twice to assure myself that it was indeed written by Kevin Sun. It has that rising sort of line that reminds you of Epistrophy, along with elements of other Monk pieces such as Hackensack. To be honest, though, I was happy to hear that someone nowadays appreciates Monk enough to cobble some of his licks and rhythms together to make a tune of their own.

Palindromania’s Dream begins as an uptempo romp that suddenly slows down a few notches for the pianist to change gears and introduce an opposing melodic line. The tempo slows down still further for Sun’s sax solo, which becomes increasingly more and more bluesy and gutsy as it goes along. The episodic nature of this piece reminded me of Mingus.

The album ends with Li’s Lava, a medium-slow piece which opens with the clarinet playing long lines over the rhythm section. After just meandering along for two minutes, we get a nice bass solo, then sax and piano to the end.

Except for the first track, then, this is a fascinating disc of interesting new jazz, very well played by this highly skilled quartet.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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