Anthony Coleman & Brian Chase – Arcades / Studio Dan &Anthony Coleman - ...im Gebirg
The New York City Jazz Record, Kurt Gottschalk, 2022-07-03
In a career dating back 30 years (at least counting from his neo-klezmer Disco by Night debut), pianist/ composer Anthony Coleman has proven himself a veritable hydra of musical reconsideration and reworking. He has applied his many heads, with great success, to early jazz and ragtime, Jewish traditions, 20th Century classical and Downtown improvisation, sometimes with self-effacing humor, sometimes with great seriousness. It is hard to know what to expect next from a musician so fascinating because he seems so endlessly fascinated himself, but it is rare that his projects don’t hit at a high level.
Two recent releases suggest the variegated prongs of the trident he wields like some new music Neptune (and, yes, I’m quite willing to flog this metaphorical Pegasus to death). In one, we hear Coleman in free-flow in an intimately recorded dialogue with drums. In the other, a commission from an Austrian ensemble with a proven interest in the NYC downtown, Coleman the composer responds to the great history of 20th Century Viennese music, but doesn’t close the door to other strains of inspiration and contemplation.
Adding to the headiness, Arcades, Coleman’s duo with Yeah Yeah Yeahs drummer Brian Chase (released on Chase’s Chaikin imprint) takes its cues from Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project, an unfinished critique
of the Parisian bourgeoisie to which the philosopher devoted more than a decade leading up to World War II. There is plenty of grist for the mill there and, if one so chooses, one can listen for (and find) opulence, decadence and hectic urban pace in the music. One can also, of course, ignore all of that, but either way, the album is a cerebral joy: five active and often ebullient tracks, beautifully recorded and mixed by Jeff Cook. The detail of the recording is as enjoyable as the spirit in the playing.
It takes a mind like Coleman’s to draw a connection between Second Viennese School composer Anton Webern and ‘70s punk minimalism, but it is there plain as day in the short outbursts of singular expression. Coleman goes further to draw connections to Thelonious Monk’s gestural language in the liner notes to ...im Gebirg, his truly exciting album with Studio Dan. The ensemble was founded in 2015 and has commissioned and worked with Anthony Braxton, Fred Frith, George Lewis and Elliott Sharp, among others.They are, in other words, quite adept at realizing the ideas of composers who color outside the lines. As with the Walter Benjamin inspiration, however, the influences at play on ...im Gebirg aren’t worn on thesleeve. Journalist Thomas Mießgang draws further allusions in the liner notes, finding links to Glenn Branca, Morton Feldman and Sun Ra.
Those are certainly all ingredients in Coleman’s cooking pot, but the half-dozen pieces aren’t cheeky pastiche. He makes good use of the small chamber orchestra: three strings, two woodwinds, two brass, a drumkit and both himself and Michael Tiefenbacher on piano and harmonium. The music is very much composed (improvisation would seem to be at a minimum) and, if not without precedent, singular in its exposition and singularly Coleman’s. Recorded live at Porgy & Bess in Vienna in 2019, the pieces (with the exception of the opening track) fall into a tidy five-sevenminutes each, with a through-line suggesting an emotional arc, if not a narrative one. The exception that proves the rules in place comes in the penultimate “Orgelstück”, a quartet improvisation for bass, drumand both keyboard players, which is nicely uncentered and sadly seems cut short.
Coleman is quite too humble to be called a god. He makes no claims to Neptune status. He is no Perseus freeing Pegasus from the head of Medusa only to be beaten by an unimaginative journalist thirsty for allusion. But he is an absolute master of improvising upon, composing within and advancing the traditions born of jazz. These two records are neither the first nor the last times he has proven that, but prove it they do.