[28 July 2008]
Pianist Wayne Horvitz has been in about a dozen leading jazz-avant-classical ensembles, from early days with John Zorn’s Naked City, through groove-oriented Zoney Mash, to solo collaborations with his wife Robin Holcombe. His Mylab project, with producer and percussionist Tucker Martine, filtered diverse genres, from African proto-blues to bluegrass, through an ebullient aesthetic. Horvitz maintains that all these projects are united by a single vision. In a recent interview, he commented that, “I am infatuated with certain harmonic, melodic and rhythmic devices, and those devices are the backbone of everything I do.”
This year, as if to test this hypothesis, Horvitz has released two separate albums with wholly different ensembles. His self-released A Walk in the Dark reassembles the Sweeter than the Day quartet of Horvitz, plus Timothy Young on guitar, Keith Lowe on acoustic bass, and Eric Eagle on drums. One Dance Alone convenes Horvitz’ newest ensemble, the classically-leaning Gravitas Quartet with Peggy Lee on cello, Ron Miles on cornet, and Sara Schoenbeck on bassoon. Even better, the two recordings include a handful of common songs.
Instrumentation, obviously, shapes the sound. Sweeter than the Day, centered around a conventional drum-bass rhythm section and featuring an electric guitar, has a more insistent grounding in rhythm. The piano line in title track “Walk in the Dark” swaggers lightfootedly, for instance, abetted by shuffling brush on snares and plunking bass. “A Moment for Andrew” surges ahead on big chords and cymbal crashes, then draws back for the unexpected melodic turn. None of it is tied to a beat, at least not in any heavy, dictatorial way, but the beat is always there, pulsing, pushing, grooving in the background.
The guitar, too, lends texture to Horvitz’ liquid runs and unanticipated explorations. “A Moment for Andrew” densifies at its mid-point, Young’s guitar speaking in syncopated counterpoint to Horvitz’ quicksilver melodies. It sounds almost like rock for a minute, the guitar setting off muted explosions, the drums echoing with a haze of cymbal and snare shots. And then it pulls back for clarity, a series of chords picked out carefully and allowed to hang a bit, over a scratchy bassline. There is a late night glamour to the whole thing, a sense of risks taken and lines crossed.
One Dance Alone is necessarily cooler and more flowing, since it lacks the staccato counterpoint of string bass and snare. Instead, it makes use of clear, sustained tones, the brightness of brass, the ominous hum of bassoon. The time signature is harder to discern in three abstract, new classical tracks named for July dates (“July 3”, “July 2”, “July 1”), instruments ranging freely over moody soundscapes. And yet, no one said that classical instruments couldn’t turn sharp and abrasive. The title track, “One Dance Alone”, bristles with staccato, every instrument turned as confrontationally terse as unpedaled piano, exploding in bursts and joining for unexpectedly lyrical interludes.
The two discs, in short, could hardly be more different, and yet, they are united by a couple of things. One, obviously, is Horvitz, whose playing has the same liquid transparency, the same intellectual inquiry, the same aversion to the expected in both ensembles. The other, fascinatingly, is a handful of songs that appear on both CDs. By listening to these, you can get a bit more of a grip on what Horvitz is always trying to do, and how this effort is affected by the materials at hand.
For instance, let’s take “Waltz from Woman of Tokyo”, a clear highlight on both discs. The song—and it really is a “song” in this case—follows a simple, lilting melody, played, in both cases, by Horvitz on piano. There are breaks in the melody, where other chords, other keys are briefly considered and discarded, but you return always afterwards to absolute clarity. The Sweeter than the Day version is, characteristically, paced by subtle drumming; there is a lovely duet between Horvitz and Young near the end. It is the sort of song you could dance to, very slowly, if it were dark enough and late enough. The Gravitas version, by contrast, feels more public and expositional, a piece to listen to rather than move to. In it, Horvitz cedes the melody to Miles’ cornet at intervals, at other times allows it to be carried by Schoenbeck’s bassoon. Lovely long well-rounded notes carry the tune forward, at a measured, thoughtful pace, Horvitz keeping time with oscillating two-note figures. It is as sunlit and tranquil as the other version is nocturnal, and yet, the two pieces share a clarity, a melody and a sense of melancholy space.
You might expect “Waltz” to work better as a concert hall piece, and perhaps it does, though the nightclub jazz version is almost as compelling. What, then, of the more rhythmic, jazz-centered compositions? How do they work in translation? Fortunately, there are two versions of “A Walk in the Rain” as well. On the Sweeter than the Day disc, this is one of the bluesiest grooves of the bunch, lit up in the middle by a smoking electric guitar solo. The Gravitas take keeps the pulsing beat in play, via Horvitz’ piano cadence, and the cornet solo over top carries much of the same water as Young’s guitar. Yet the blues chords have somehow gotten abstracted, turned post-classical and a little chilly. It’s still recognizably the same melody, the same swing, but turned a bit more knowing and referential. There’s a distancing, an intellectual cast to this cut that clearly distinguishes it from the other version.
Most people will probably favor one Horvitz disc over another, gravitating either towards the more familiar jazz sounds of Sweeter than the Day or the experimental classical leanings of Gravitas. That’s fine and welcome to it. Still, the really interesting thing is listening to both, discerning one fascinating aesthetic as it works its way through different media.