Anna Webber Finds Her Voice in New Jazz with 'Clockwise'
A composer and woodwind player who is expertly walking the line between jazz and new music, Anna Webber has assembled a great band of improvisors to follow her mostly-brilliant treasure map in the new jazz.
22 February 2019
The new jazz grows more insistent and interesting each year, with a group of brilliant composers and players, particularly in New York, taking the music to riveting new places. This style combines elements from classical "new music" (and its ease with dissonance and extended technique, wildly catholic influences, and a dazzling precision in performance) and from modern jazz (rhythmic momentum, improvisation, and an approach to composition informed by the jazz masters from Ellington to Threadgill and Braxton). Unlike previous generations of jazz/classical hybrids, the new jazz breathes and expands outward, a flowing, thrilling, and utterly natural expression of younger artists whose music educations suggest no meaningful lines between Charlie Parker, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Sly Stone.
Anna Webber, a composer and woodwind player originally from British Columbia, has been in New York for over a decade, playing with folks like John Hollenbeck, Matt Mitchell, Dan Weiss, Jen Shyu, Ohad Talmor, and Fabian Almazan. She has also played, notably in Ken Thomson's sextet—Thomson being a saxophonist who lives a double life as both a jazz player and a member of the new music Bang on a Can All-Stars. Like Thomson, Webber lives in these shadows, right at the heart of the new jazz, and her latest recording sounds like a watershed in the new form.
Clockwise features a septet that reads like a jazz group on the page: two reeds/woodwinds (herself and Jeremy Viner); trombonist Jacob Garchik; the rhythm section of Matt Mitchell (piano), Chris Tordini (bass); and cellist Christopher Hoffman. In many ways the band operates as a classic jazz band. Smith and Tordini generate a feeling and groove in time, Mitchell often outlines harmonies on piano, and the horns (and cello) tend to play composed melodies in intricate conversation. There are improvised solos—on "King of Denmark I/Loper", Viner embarks on a long improvisation that uses motivic development in a positively Sonny Rollins-esque manner. So this is "jazz", right?
But even a cursory listen to "Loper" as a whole teaches you how distinctive Webber's music really is—a thing from the jazz tradition but flung free from that tradition at once. Its swirling opening—all rattling percussion and horns in a timbral twist—is a set of gorgeous wind chimes that dissolves into an off-kilter groove of drums and horns. The groove is odd in the way that hip-hop can be odd: slightly mechanical or suggesting a polyrhythm that doesn't swing as much as stumble. A melody for piano and cello flows, but the rhythm beneath it gets that much more peculiar in the contrast, lines for different instruments piling up into an unsettling sandwich of slightly different accents and movements. It is from this build-up of tension that Viner launches his improvisation, one that rubs dramatically against the cello's own grind and the peculiar ticking of the drums and bass. It ends up being Mitchell's piano that enters with a set of chords that helps the band to swing somewhat more, to which Viner responds by moving his improvised lines into a more mellifluous format, rising over time to a climax.
What is going on inside the performances on Clockwise is complex enough to require analysis and explanation that would make any written review grow tedious. But what your ear is taking in doesn't have to be anything like math homework. "Array", for example, can be heard as a good ol' jam, if you like—a long and dancing collective improvisation that has much in common with a New Orleans jazz recording or a Grateful Dead version of "Dark Star"—with the musicians working within a tonal framework to spin delicious conversation. Reading that Webber developed this staccato composed texture from a Milton Babbitt solo snare drum piece called "Homily" could make it all seem academic, but your ears don't have to do any research on Babbitt to simply delight in how Webber's flute and Mitchell's piano begin the piece like several treefuls of sparrows waking up in the morning, or how Viner's clarinet moves around nimbly only to be outdone by the positively Astaire-like dance of Garchik's trombone or how Smith's brush patterns on the snare drum pop and swing as if Max Roach had risen and joined the proceedings. There's more here—a strictly composed middle section that is nimble and toe-tapping and, especially, a Mitchell piano improvisation that begins as counterpoint to the horns and then moves into a tempo-less section like a night fog that knows its Duke Ellington before leading the band into a thrilling finish that grooves like dancing typewriter. To hell with analysis: that song is fun to listen to!
Maybe this music is fun because, at heart, it somehow conjures the dance impulse. Webber explains that most of the pieces are based on her interest in the percussion music of a set of favorite modern composers (Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman, Edgard Varése, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Milton Babbitt, and John Cage, specifically), which music she has analyzed, pulling out specific passages that could be rearranged and reimagined into new compositions entirely. You can hear the way Webber is playing with fragments of rhythm, most certainly. On "Kore I", there is a distinctive two-note figure that repeats like the ticking of a clock (the name Clockwise certainly makes sense here), holding together everything that circulates around it, including a muted Garchik improvisation that drips with emotion before it becomes unmuted and even more thrilling. Yes, you can hear this if you want to, or you can discard your own analysis and simply marvel at the balance, drama, and enjoyment in these performances.
There are also moments of challenge to your ears—daring if you like it, weird if the newness is a bit much for your taste. "Idiom II" starts with a counterpoint of saxophones that is precise (including perfectly coordinated, unison low notes that begin a bit of funk) but also pitched so that they sound deliberately out of tune. This is no mistake or just bad intonation by the players, as the composition eventually finds its way to a surging riff section that is punchy and thrilling like a big band chart from the 1950s but also using a slight dissonance in the arrangement that unsettles your ears. All of it is glued together by clear intention, badass funk grooving, and some improvisations (particularly by Hoffman and Garchik), that sound like they would have been impressive on a 1970s AACM recording.
One of the joys of Clockwise is that Webber is interested both in creating complex and longer-form structures that incorporate improvisation and in presenting short, intriguing compositions that are satisfying in under two minutes of listening. "King of Denmark II" is a long timpani roll from Smith over which Webber programs a set of cymbal squeaks and chimes. "Hologram Best" features the leader improvising on tenor saxophone over a fast toggle of funk patterns for trombone, piano, and eventually the whole band—but it's over in a flash. "King of Denmark III" is a beehive crescendo that rivets for 68 seconds and ends on a neat dime.
One of the most intriguing tracks is the title song, "Clockwise", which is both lyrical and off-kilter at the same time. The opening passage, a mysterious and blues-tinged section for bass, bass flute, and vibes, draws you in. It is insinuating and a slow build, with other instruments creeping in over time. It doles out some of the atmosphere of "jazz" (not just the long Webber improvisation, but also the feeling of slow swing, a possibly tapped toe) but then slides gently away from that feeling. Mitchell's piano takes over around the three-minute mark, improvising as the other instruments start to assemble a ballad-like ensemble sounds built in pastels and cushion. The composition transitions three more times—once into a stuttering composed section that brings in Smith's drums, then into a set of timbrally fascinating whole note sections for the horns that allows Smith to improvise, and finally into a brief staccato counterpoint that is harmonically but not otherwise related to the opening. The tune is not the manifesto of Clockwise, but it is another neat summary of how the new jazz manages to have its cake and eat it too, integrally: there are real "jazz" pleasures here, but they are one ingredient in a diverse and unforced vision of 21st century art music.
Anna Webber isn't new on the scene, but Clockwise still seems like a minor coming out party, a mature artist finding her voice. Whether you are interested in the future of (new) jazz or improvised music or new music or just fine, interesting music by whatever label, open up your ears and get ready for tomorrow.