This disc, titled Absolutely!, may be seen/heard as a counterpart to the Dragon CD (reviewed elsewhere) by the Alloy Sax Quartet, but I enjoyed it much, much more. In the notes, Steinmetz indicates his merging of “jazz and classical traditions ” (emphasis mine) but never says how much of this music is improvised. Whether or not it is improvised on the spot, or improvised ahead of time and then written down, the end result sounds at times – particularly in the Absolutely! suite – very much like the jazz-classical hybrids of the 1950s and 60s, e.g., Charles Mingus’s Gregarian Chant or the “jazzical” compositions of Alonzo Levister.
The recorded sound – roomy and with a lot of ambience despite clear, crisp playing – has much to do with this similarity. I haven’t heard sonics like these since the 1950s, except perhaps on Ornette Coleman’s two Sound Museum CDs, which also had a retro feel.
The music is often bitonal or lacking a clear tonality. Echoes of Bartók, Stravinsky, and Herbie Nichols permeate Absolutey!, and Steinmetz’s soprano sax flutters its way through the proceedings in a way that adds a voice to the string quartet in addition to soloing over it. Violinist Tolling, by nature of his instrument, often sounds as if he is emerging from the ensemble. The central movement here, “Honesty,” has a very strong Nichols quality in the rhythm and overall construction. “Unselfishness” begins as a dialogue between sax, solo violin, and viola, after which the quartet’s cellist (Heather Tuach) plucks her instrument like a jazz bass while the other three strings lay down a cushion with a gentle, repeated figure for the soloists, then later involve themselves in the development section. Some of this music put me in mind of Eastern modes, which I was happy to find confirmed by the liner notes, which refer to the composer’s experiences in South India. On this track, Steinmetz switches to orkon flute. Tolling’s playing here reminded me of the Turtle Island String Quartet – and again, the notes bore this out, as he played with that groundbreaking ensemble for several years. What amazed me more was how the Fitzwilliam String Quartet also manages to assimilate this style at times. The last movement, “Love,” is an extraordinary polyphonic piece whose texture becomes increasingly complex as it develops.
Steinmetz’s Chaconne for Steve Lacy may be incomprehensible to listeners unfamiliar with this avant-garde jazz soprano saxist, as so many little elements of Lacy’s style can be discerned in it. I was intrigued by its designation to be played by “soprano saxophone with solo instrument or voice.” as I found it difficult to imagine a wordless vocal in place of the violin here. The music becomes more abstract towards the end of the piece.
Steinmetz’s arrangements of the Purcell Fantasias are fascinating for the clever way he has woven the soprano sax, playing variations on the themes, into them without disturbing either the flow or the musical content of the works. His own Fantasia, titled “Epiphany,” returns to his multi-tonal style, pitting open fourths played by the higher strings against both his sax and the plucked/bowed cello.
The disc concludes with an arrangement of the Bach Chaconne from the Violin Partita No. 2 by Steinmetz and Lucy Russell, first violinist of the Fitzwilliam Quartet, that does indeed include “an improvised counterpoint” to the lead line. Steinmetz’s pure, cool tone reminds one of the way Johnny Hodges played the soprano sax than the styles of most later players of the instrument such as Coltrane, Dolphy, and Lacy, but elegance of style and purity of tone do not preclude emotional commitment. I must also lavish praise on Russell for her outstanding playing on this track.
This is a remarkable CD; highly recommended!
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