GEORGE LEWIS / OXANA OMELCHUK // STUDIO DAN - Breaking News
The Squid's Ear, Brian Olewnick, 2021-01-14
Lewis' "As We May Feel" is one of the sonically richest pieces this listener has heard from him in quite some time, kind of a more concise, fuller expression of the work he's recently done with Berlin's Splitter Orchester. The structure is modular and flowing, no repeated themes but also more organically connected than episodic. Much of the music at the outset is quite forceful and bright, bearing, to these ears, very tenuous traces of big bands from Ellington's reed and brass sections to George Russell's knottier ensembles to some of Braxton's large group pieces. But it's Lewis' presence that permeates, even if the general language he uses seems to be derived from 60s Western European models (Xenakis, Kagel). He, and certainly the ensemble, invest the work with a consistently vibrant character, dense, rich and rumbling, each phase carefully but forcibly limned. Brian Morton's notes, which contain fascinating information about both pieces' connection to the writings of Vannevar Bush, give no indication as to whether Lewis allowed for improvisation among the musicians, though I suspect so.
Wow and Flutter" (for 2 Trombones and Ensemble) by Omelchuk is another beast entirely. Per the liners concerned with the history of musical reproduction, it reads on the surface as a variation on the kind of collage construction, referencing numerous often disparate traditions, that was popular in the 80s. The themes are much more direct and approachable, sometimes undergirded by an intriguing tissue of low trombones, veering off into snatches of ragtime, operetta, later jazz (including a straight quote from Mingus) and more. A deep, nicely awkward bass motif that sounds like it could have been lifted from a warped old Saturn LP is accosted by light percussion and string scrapes, settling into an odd and effective kind off-kilter, slow motion dance. This is followed by a brassy fanfare with aggressive, jazzy drumming, punchy and insistent; the episodic nature that Lewis managed to skillfully avoid is in full force here. Each section offers a good deal of interest and enjoyment and, as with the first piece, the music is excellently performed, but the overall effect is somewhat lacking. When the work ends with a recording of Bessie Smith's "St. Louis Blues", we're presented with the same dichotomy: the music is great; its connection with what has preceded is more problematic.