Index of SEMJA reviews



Recent Releases by Area Artists


Over the past decade or so a quiet revolution has taken place in the music scene of the Ann Arbor area. The dominant mode is still modern bop-derived jazz, but a growing number of young musicians has turned to more avant-garde forms of improvised music. Some of this new spirit has been documented on recordings; this is important since many of these players move on to other cities and are replaced by the next crop of youngsters. The four CDs that are the subject of this review document some of the best groups of a certain period. We shall undoubtedly be hearing from them again as they pass through on tour with established ensembles and with their own groups.

For a while it seemed that Transmission was performing in Ann Arbor every week and there are still yellowing posters on telephone poles signaling their past performances. The quartet of Colin Stetson on saxophone, Stuart Bogie on clarinets, Eric Perney on bass, and Andrew Kitchen on drums and percussion had a loyal following and although they now all live in San Francisco, they often come through town. Their CD Transmission ( provides ample testimony of the energy and excitement generated by the group. Their eclectic approach to music making includes elements of rock, jazz, klezmer, and various folk styles, working through a broad range of moods, from quiet meditative passages to roaring stomps. All of this is informed by a youthful energy, virtuoso horn playing, and a strong sense of rhythm. 

Another group that has been heard often in Ann Arbor is the trio Explosion: Cerebral, consisting of Matt Bauder on tenor sax, Zach Wallace on bass, and Eric Roth on drums. Their eponymous CD explosion: cerebral ( contains eight compositions by members of the trio as well as "Rosmosis," written by trombonist Roswell Rudd. The group achieves an amazing variety of moods and textures for such limited instrumentation. Sometimes it engages in quiet abstract collective improvisations full of extended techniques, strange sounds, and out-of-tempo rumblings, only to move slowly to a roaring, screeching climax. On other compositions the bass or drums sets up a swinging groove and the sax rides over it in full-toned splendor. Indeed, Bauder's mighty saxophone sound is a wonder to behold. He plays with full confidence on the whole range of his horn and is in perfect control, whether he is playing straight ahead with a big deep sound on the lower notes or singing high in the altissimo range. Wallace is likewise in full control of various techniques of bass playing and uses his virtuosity with wit, intelligence, and soul. 

A very different approach to the new music is represented by Aaron Siegel's BLOCK, a quartet consisting of the leader on drums, Andrew Bishop on tenor sax and clarinet, Jacob Garchik on trombone, and Tim Flood on bass. Their CD is entitled BLOCK ( Siegel is the composer of all six compositions on the recording, and if one were to make any analogy, it would be to Gerry Hemingway, the great contemporary drummer-leader-composer. Like Hemingway, Siegel has a vision of a group sound and knows how to pick just the right players with which to work. All four musicians are masters of their instruments and, perhaps even more important, know how to keep their individual voices while blending together in a group. Bishop's deliberate, thematic improvisations on tenor and clarinet impress once again, as does the sensitive trombone playing of Garchik. Flood is a master of this kind of music; he can go far out without loosing any sense of swing. All of this is held together by Siegel's complex drumming; he prods and comments on the proceedings and plays the traps just as one would expect from a composer. The CD is held together by the compositional style of the leader, who manages to write in a broad range of styles without surrendering his individual voice. 

The Northwoods Improvisers have been playing and recording together for some time. Their latest CD is Lightning Darkness (Entropy 005), on which the trio (Mike Gilmore, vibes, cheng, bone guitar, percussion, Mike Johnson, bass, wood flutes, percussion, and Nick Ashton, drums, percussion) is joined, on some numbers, by Ben Bracken (tamboura, percussion) and Kirk Lucas (cello, tambourine, bowed banjo). Together they create a seemingly limitless variety of sounds and textures, with various percussion instruments often rocking out into subtle patterns over which vibes and various string and wind instruments ride. The rhythms vary from backbeat rock to complex folk pulses and free patterns. Some compositions are raucous, others have no obvious rhythmic pattern but explore sonic textures in minute detail. This group has created a unique world of sound that draws on many sources, from contemporary classical to European and Asian folk music to Sun Ra, whose "God is More than Love" receives a highly original interpretation.

Almost the same cast comes together as the Remote Viewing Ensemble (Entropy 003). Ben Bracken, Mike Gilmore, and Mike Johnson play on the first five cuts and are joined by Kirk Lucas on "Adhuta." Their repertoire of acoustic and electric instruments is too large to enumerate. It is impossible to describe adequately the subtle complexity of this music, which owes much to the influence of composers such as Takemisu, but is ultimately original and without direct precedent. Similarly to some of the parts of the previous release, this music is based on shifting sounds and textures; some are easy to identify, but others seem to come from another world. Various drones come and go, but unlike the Northwoods group, in this combination the musicians rarely rely on swinging rhythmic patterns. I would call this music "ambient" were it not for the obvious negative connotations that this term has acquired. This is stunning music that grows upon you with each listen.

In a final note I would like to draw our readers' attention to a new release by trumpeter Hugh Ragin, An Afternoon in Harlem (Justin Time 127-2). On this fine date Ragin is joined, on various cuts, by Andrew Cyrille and Bruce Cox on drums, David Murray on bass clarinet, and even by Amiri Baraka, who reads one of his poems. From our perspective it is important to highlight the contributions of Detroit's own Jaribu Shahid on bass, and former Ann Arbor pianist Craig Taborn. Both have been on the road for some time with James Carter, but it is nice to hear them in a different context. Taborn gets quite a bit of room on this recording and he makes the most of it, shining as an accompanist and as a soloist. For those who are enamoured of his playing, this CD is a must!