The Donald Sinta Quartet’s “Ex Machina”

Ex Machina Cover Art

EX MACHINA / MELLITS: Ex Machina. Black. CHOWENHILL: In Solitude I Sit. RAMAN: Mirapakaya. BIEDENBENDER: Cerulean. ZUPKO: Quantum Shift. HASS: Volcanic Ash / Donald Sinta Quartet / Bright Shiny Things BTSC-0133

My readers know that I’m all for recordings of contemporary music, but those who have been reading my blog closely also know that I’ve detected a trend that has, in my view, become a formula—or, rather, two formulae. Much of the music presented as contemporary nowadays falls into one of two patterns, often both on the same CD. First is what I call the “edgy-abrasive” school of writing, pieces that begin with piercing squeals, screams or crashes, followed by a pullback to quietude, only to have the music ramp up again and build on its squeals and crashes with music written in a stiff rhythm…sort of the modern-day equivalent of musique conxrète. The other is the soft, slow, meditative or moping sort of piece, apparently relating to millennials’ wishes to have the big bad world go away and leave them alone. And as I said, both have become formulaic.

I did, however, rather like the opening section of Marc Mellits’ Ex Machina, which pursues a sort of minimalist, machine-like syncopation. Its subtitle, however—“Let the Funk Out”—is a bit misleading since the Sinta Quartet doesn’t have a jazz bone in their collective bodies. They did, however, capture the more subtly undulating feel of the second piece, “Flowing,” quite nicely. Being a classically trained sax quartet, their tones are very clinical. One should not expect or look for the kind of warmth one hears from jazz saxophonists. They use very little to no vibrato (and in that respect I’m a bit puzzled, as I’ve heard other classical saxophonists who do), which makes their performance of the third piece, “Not Quite, But Almost Pensive,” sound mellow but not warm. The music itself, however, is again quite interesting, with a really nice melodic line that is attractive. In Part 4, “Dancing a Mean, Ghastly Dance,” the quartet works its way through stiff, choppy rhythms with technical aplomb. The remaining three sections of the work—“The Morning After,” “Flowing, Lyrical & Songlike” and “Aggressive & Funky,” are pretty much as you’d expect except, as I mentioned above, “funky” is not something these musicians are. They seriously need to sit down and listen for a few months to Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins and Pepper Adams for a few tips on how to loosen up their sound.

Richard Chowenhill’s In Solitude I Sit opens with low drones from the baritone sax that sound like a didgeridoo. Eventually the other saxes join him in his droning. And they continue to drone, sometimes in very close intervals. Yep, lots of droning in this piece. zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

With Suby Raman’s Mirapakaya, we encounter more stiff-rhythmed syncopations. The piece is pretty well developed, however, which makes it rather interesting, including some interesting passages where the saxes ascend and descend scales that take one to unexpected landing notes. Later on, there is some syncopated handclapping added to the mix. In its latter stages, the music becomes more lyrical and reflective for a while before returning to the faster tempo, at which point the music sounds like a background for a belly dance. A relatively fun piece.

David Biedenbeider’s Cerulean, in three movements, opens up with music that has that “dawn on the desert” feel to it, with softly undulating low sax figures mirrored in different pitches above. Somewhat minimalist in structure, it sadly doesn’t really go anywhere. In the second movement, we’re back to soft droning. Yep, lots of droning in this piece. zzzzzzzzzzzzz. Fortunately, the music wakes up and actually goes somewhere in the third movement, titled “Goof Groove.” Again, please don’t take the term “groove” too literally, but this piece is lively and humorous and I liked it. In a few places, Biederbeider scored the saxes so that they almost sound like a harmonica, and towards the end the saxes explode in an upward flurry of notes.

I was extremely impressed by Mischa Zupko;s Quantum Shift, a piece that explodes like a box of fireworks and just keeps on moving. Swirling lines played by each of the four saxes erupt and intersect with one another in a whirlwind of activity, and I really enjoyed the way Zupko made all of this work. If one listens carefully, you can hear where and how the music develops. It’s really a very ingenious piece.

Oddly, Chris Evan Hass’ piece Volcanic Ash almost sounds like Eastern European music, bordering a bit on Klezmer and belly dancing. They must have some pretty jolly volcanic ash where he comes from! The somewhat slower, quieter middle section does not really relive the tension, but simply simmers it instead of putting it on full boil. Again, this is a very enjoyable piece.

We end where we began, in a stiffly syncopated piece by Marc Mellits, this one titled Black. It’s pretty much in the same style and format as his previous pieces, and again played well, but stiffly, by the quartet.

A somewhat frustrating album, because much of the music is quite good. A few pieces, as noted above, are not particularly interesting, and several others would sound quite excellent indeed if the Donald Sinta Quartet ever learned what jazz phrasing is.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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