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Jon Irabagon / Alejandro Aviles: alto sax
Geoff Vidal: tenor sax
Rane Moore / Ken Thomson: bass clarinet
William Stevens / Vladimir Katz / Daniel Kelly: piano
James Johnston: synth
Michael O'Brien: bass
David Skidmore: drums
Dmitri Tymoczko’s recently published book, A Geometry of Music: Harmony and Counterpoint in the Extended Common Practice, is a fascinating attempt at a generalized music theory and is a synthesis of an extremely broad range of music which is at the same time extremely heady and a joy to read. So it should probably come as no surprise that Beat Therapy, a new disc of Tymoczko’s own compositions, is equally far reaching yet utterly entertaining.
On the surface Beat Therapy appears to be a jazz/funk album, albeit a somewhat quirky one. It is scored for an octet of trumpet, two saxophones, bass clarinet, piano, electric bass, and drums, plus a synthesizer. But although each of the album’s eight tracks contains improvised solos (according to the disc’s booklet notes), the material is pretty heavily notated. You can get an idea of this from the PDF of the score which is available on Tymoczko’s website; many of the seemingly improvisatory passages therein are actually completely written out. Another tip that this might not be exactly jazz is that Tymoczko himself does not perform on the album. Admittedly this is not without precedent—George Russell did not touch an instrument on his watershed first album, The Jazz Workshop (1957), nor did Charles Mingus on Me, Myself an Eye (1977) which was recorded only months before his death—but it is nevertheless far from the norm. Upon closer listening, you’ll also hear that there’s also almost no literal repetition in the material which is a big contrast to the still fairly ubiquitous head—series of solo variations—repetition of head recipe that has been used as the basic layout for jazz since well before the ascendancy of bebop. But again, there have been other notable examples that shattered this formula, particularly in the realm of free jazz and the sonic explorations of the alumni of the AACM, etc. Ultimately, like the output of Mingus, Russell (who notably was also an extremely significant music theorist), and the AACM folks, Tymoczko’s Beat Therapy is far reaching music that cannot be pigeon-holed by genre.
“Loop and Swing” has a somewhat funky groove but it is overlaid with aphoristic figurations performed by various members of the ensemble. It is a wonderful reminder that the sound world of Babbitt, Martino, Wuorinen, and other integral serialists is really not that far away from that of the post-bop of Eric Dolphy or even the pointillistic funk of Miles Davis’s On The Corner. Similarly, while there’s a toe-tapping steadiness to “Kachunk,” it is built from a sequence of seemingly random block chords in the piano—a terrain that George Russell had previously mined very effectively when he played piano on his seminal sextet recordings from the early 1960s. Compared with those two opening salvos, “Katrina Stomp” sounds relatively straight ahead, but the harmonies get gnarlier as the piece progresses. As Tymoczko acknowledges in his notes, it “took a darker turn as I reflected on what had happened to New Orleans.” The next track, “Sweet Nothings,” begins with a gorgeous long trumpet melody and once the whole band gets fired up it has an almost Gamelan-like feel, though the riffs never quite become ostinatos. The somewhat more subdued “The Mysterious Stranger,” though still clearly tonal, is built upon a rather off-kilter progression. As in A Geometry of Music, Tymoczko revels in the possibilities of a tonality which can go well beyond the narrow definitions promulgated by earlier theorists’ analyses of so-called common practice era repertoire. “Earthquake,” as you might imagine from the title, also navigates some atypical harmonic terrain but nevertheless maintains tonal pull and directionality. At one point the predominantly angular melodies are transformed into lockstep parallel sax lines reminiscent of the jazz-inspired music coming out of Ethiopia in the mid-1970s (music that has thankfully become available to the rest of the world through the Ethiopiques series on the Paris-based Buda Music label and which served as the haunting soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s 2005 film Broken Flowers). “Dreams May Come,” which gives the synthesizer a much more prominent role at the onset, remains conventionally diatonic by contrast. Finally, “Sayonara,” which also opens with the synthesizer, is both normal and strange at the same time. While it initially sounds like it would not be out of place on a jazz/funk fusion album, it grows progressively more chromatic and rhythmically skewed.
In A Geometry of Music, Tymoczko does a terrific job of revealing how so much seemingly disparate music has common ground. It’s extremely gratifying that he can not only talk the talk but walk the walk by seamlessly linking these common threads in his own music.