Scott Lee Through the Mangrove Tunnels

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LEE: Thorough the Mangrove Tunnels. The Man in the Water. Naravez Dance Club. Flying Fish. Plaything of Desire. Engine Trouble. The Ballad of Willie Cole. Floating Away / JACK Quartet; Steven Beck, pno; Russell Lacy, dm / Panoramic Recordings PAN20

Scott Lee is a composer who grew up “wandering the swamps and bayous of Florida,” thus he wrote this suite based on “my memories as well as the colorful history Weedon Island, a nature preserve in St. Petersburg that I spent my childhood exploring. The island’s many legends include ceremonial gatherings of Native Americans, landings by Spanish conquistadors, burned-down speakeasies, shootouts, bootlegging, a failed movie studio, plane crashes, and an axe-murder.” So we can surely expect a jolly time as we listen to this music!

Through the Mangrove Tunnels opens with somber, slow bass notes played on the piano, behind which one eventually hears the string quartet making some bizarre sounds, to which the drums are added. Ambient music, perhaps, but ambient music with an edge, and it is developed in an interesting manner. My sole complaint was the bias of the drummer towards a rock beat. This I could have lived without.

But the music is no stranger than Weedon Island itself. Judging from the photo in the booklet, it doesn’t even look like an island, but rather like a series of huge mossy growths sticking up out of the water like fungus. I can well imagine the impression this made on a young boy, especially when combined with tales of criminal activity and violence. The second piece on this CD, “The Man in the Water,” sounds like a riot of psychopaths against sanity—not too far removed from latter-day rioters on both sides of the political spectrum.

Weedon Island

The music written for the piano, though edgy, is relatively conventional, but the music written for the string quartet is anything but. The JACK Quartet puts itself through some remarkable musical contortions in each of these pieces, seldom playing as one would expect a string quartet to play; it must have taken them hours and hours to master this music. “Naravez Dance Club” has a rhythm simulating American Indian music but combined with a bit of an R&B swagger before moving, once again, into a rock beat. (Note to modern classical composers: Please can the rock beat. It doesn’t fit in with your music. Thank you.) Finally, in “Flying Fish,” the viola gets something to play that almost sounds like conventional music, albeit atonal music, with the other three instruments occasionally joining in for some swirling figures.

Yet without a score, technical description of each of these pieces is a bit difficult, as one often gets lost in counting beats, as in the opening of “Playthings of Desire” until it settles down into a strangely Chopin-like melody before deconstructing itself over amorphous rhythms and modal harmonies. When the quartet enters, we suddenly return to echt-Romantic melodies, almost slurpy and soothing. As if to offset this, however, “Engine Trouble” is comprised of chaotic, bouncing rhythmic figures played solely by the quartet.

“The Ballad of Willie Cole” is also fast and edgy, starting out with the quartet until the piano and drums enter behind them. The quality of this music is primarily in the modern “shock” style of today, yet with interesting modifications, and in this piece the music suddenly veers towards the soft rock genre. Please, Scott, stop the rock nonsense. Later in the same piece, after a pause, Lee involves the piano quintet in a sort of minimalist fantasy, with the cello playing stretched-out musical lines across the ostinato rhythm…until the rock beat returns and the tempo increases.

In short, it’s an interesting album, full of novel ideas that are for the most part well crafted and extremely fascinating. If your tolerance for rock music is higher than mine, you’ll surely enjoy it.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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