Last year, former Contemporary Noise Sextet member Kuba Kapsa released a note-perfect album on Denovali records named Vantdraught 10, Vol. 1. Rather than compose a second volume for the same ten-piece ensemble, the Polish pianist has instead scaled the group back to just four members. Vantdraught 4 now has the uncomfortable task of achieving neo-classical greatness for the second time in a row with fewer musicians (a scary thought if one is a spring chicken). This may be only the second album recorded under the Kuba Kapsa Ensemble moniker, but the avant-jazz veteran is no spring chicken. Vantdraught 4 is the sound of lightening striking in the same place for the second time in a row—that is, if lightening sounded like modern classical chamber music.
The makeup of the quartet sounds meager on paper. This edition of the Kuba Kapsa Ensemble is just piano, violin, trombone, and a fourth musician doubling on clarinet and bass clarinet. But there are certain crescendos played by the violin and the trombone simultaneously that give the impression of something larger. The timbre of a clarinet, especially a bass clarinet, is a warm one; at the same time, it is sharp enough to cut through most musical environments. Combined with all 88 keys of the piano and the wide-ranging instincts of Kapsa’s writing, the music and mystery of Vantdraught 4 seizes the imagination from the very first bar. Even by cutting the size of the group by more than half, Kuba Kapsa is able to sustain the magic.
There is a trade-off in the characteristics of the music, of course. The ten-piece ensemble had to rely on a clearly defined pulse to help make the music happen. Thus, Vantdraught 10, Vol. 1 was, by comparison, more rhythmically driven, whereas Vantdraught 4 is more impressionistic, a trait that may have been foreshadowed by the album’s eerie cover art (courtesy of Kahn & Selesnick). That doesn’t make the whole album a work of isolationism, though. Minimalist neo-classical relies on its fair share of ostinatos, and the fifth track (all tracks are numerically titled) uses it in full force. The concluding sixth track, however, is propelled by a simple six-note figure played by the trombone, violin, and clarinet in overlapping patterns, giving the guise of a group rubato. Melody, harmony, and texture are the names of the game here, guaranteeing that Vantdraught 4 will appeal to fans of Denovali records’ more abstract brand of electronic music, as well as those who consider the sky to be the limit as far as modern chamber music goes.
And why should there be a limit? With his two Kuba Kapsa Ensemble albums alone, the Polish composer has quietly busted a barrier that kept listenable neo-classical from being adventurous (and adventurous neo-classical from being listenable). Already, the newly-minted Vantdraught series allows the music and all of the potential it carries to swirl upwardly toward a glass ceiling built to hide the possibilities of instrumental music. I hope we’re all paying attention when it finally shatters.
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