About ten years ago, the internet started regarding modern jazz drummer Bobby Previte as an indie wunderkind with a promising career ahead of him. It felt like all the high-profile work he had done for the Grammavision, Tzadik, and Ropeadope labels (just to mention a few) dating back to the mid-’80s was a career that belonged to a different person. 2009’s
Pan Atlantic didn’t get much of a promotional push, and now it appears that even Allmusic.com will only occasionally pay attention to him.
RareNoise, the small and reliably weird label devoted to some relatively out-there jazz and electronic music, is doing its humble best to give us Previte’s latest whims. That includes traditional jazz with Jamie Saft and Steve Swallow, keeping time with Iggy Pop, and even composing a liturgical Mass. Rhapsody is just as ambitious as anything from Previte’s past — even that music for the Moscow circus — and certainly stands out among the work he’s recorded for RareNoise. Calling it jazz is a stretch, but calling it nearly anything else would be a stretch as well. Keep in mind, Previte is a musician who has been stretching the meaning of the word “jazz” years before most people started associating the word “grunge” with music.
The big names playing in this session include guitarist Nels Cline, keyboardist John Medeski, vocalist Jen Shyu, saxophonist Fabian Rucker, and harpist and accordionist Zeena Parkins. Even though three of these five names are associated with ensembles that deal in heavily processed electronic sounds, Bobby Previte intended Rhapsody to be a fully acoustic work. Medeski sticks to the piano, Parkins sticks to her harp, and Nels Cline plays a variety of acoustic guitars. You don’t need to read Previte’s statements to know that Rhapsody is all about travel. All you need to do is look at the song titles. The album begins with “Casting Off” and ends with “I Arrive”.
Tracks in between are more ponderous in title, like “The Lost”, “All Hands”, and “Coming About”. “What is the experience of being in transit?” Previte rhetorically asks in the press material. “Separated from your home but not yet at your destination, you are neither here nor there, confined with strangers in an intimate environment for a predetermined amount of time, uncomfortable, yet somehow free. To travel is to be bound with these stranger by faith — faith in the vessel which carries you, faith in the people who operate it, and ultimately, faith in the strangers waiting at your destination.”
That certainly sounds thoughtful and everything, but how does the music sound? In a word, Rhapsody is great, but that’s too easy to say outright. Sitting down and actively listening to Rhapsody means that you’ll need to process many dynamic highs and lows as well as minimalist ostinatos that remind the average listener of neither jazz nor classical music. There are plenty of moments where the pulse is yanked out from under the music only to leave Parkins to fend for herself — an odd compositional technique coming from a drummer. If you prefer your music to be anchored in lyrics, be warned that Shyu’s vocal passages are few and far between. You also need to be prepared for long atonal passages were Shyu’s erhu and Parkins’s harp struggle to find one another with only each other’s sense of rubato to guide them. Rucker’s saxophone and Previte’s intricate rhythms may be the stuff of jazz, but this album doesn’t exactly “swing” in the old-fashioned sense. Calling it an offshoot of rock feels too limiting while slapping an adjective on it like “contemporary” ignores the more accessible passages.
Rhapsody is just a tremendous, open-ended listen in the greatest sense of the phrase. It’s like the weather in the midwest; Don’t like what’s going on? Just wait a few moments, and everything will shift. And if you’re down with judging a book by its cover, then check out the album’s artwork. What on earth is going on with those ominous looking seals, barking into the void? That’s got to aesthetically count for something, right?