N/Twirp

How many of you heard Control and Resistance, Rich Woodson’s 2000 debut on Cuneiform? Not too many raised hands seen from here.. well, here’s a second chance to enjoy the work of one of America’s most talented young composers. Woodson’s band Ellipsis has been around since 1997, primarily as a recording entity – not surprisingly so, given the extreme complexity of the music, a mixture of genres in perennial mutability: imagine a Charles Ives-approved melange of Dolphy, Zappa, Henry Cow, 5UU’s and Motor Totemist Guild – no I’m not exaggerating. Every one of the countless intricacies is notated, too: “no improvisation in this recording”, writes guitarist Woodson proudly of these pieces written between 1998 and 2003 and performed by a first-class ensemble consisting of clarinettist Anthony Burr (replacing soprano saxophonist Peter Epstein), percussionist John Hollenbeck, tenor saxophonist Aaron Stewart (no stranger to compositional complexity himself, having worked with Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and Butch Morris) and the excellent bassist Mat Fieldes. Rich Woodson’s “more-is-more” aesthetic is, according to the composer, about “cerebral exploration” in order to “document one man’s struggle to create meaning in a world where there’s none save for what we create that lasts beyond our own lifetime”. The disc opens in style with “Looking For The Right Reflection”, a collision between Curlew and Birdsongs of the Mesozoic arriving at the same platform from opposite directions. This is followed by “Let’s Talk About Virtue”, a sort of latter-day “Igor’s Boogie” in which, pinched by oblique, clean guitar lines, each part follows its own logic. “It Came From Above” presents beautiful guitar/reed unisons and contrasts, as Burr’s clarinet sings of introvert serenity while Fieldes’s obstinate pumping bass rattles the bars of his contrapuntal cage. After the brief respite of fantastic drumming and dialogue in “Cerebral Love”, “Flames From An Unlikely Source” is what happens when a bunch of top-notch Juilliard students get lost on their way to school and end up in a blind alley with an architect and a drunkard. When musicians with this technical prowess put their body, mind and soul into a ferociously complex marathon fusion of RIO styles such as “Vagueness”, or the contorted hell of instrumental precision that is “Animal Magnetism”, I’m taken back to the happy days of my own musical studies, when we still naïvely assumed intelligence would be rewarded. The wonderfully-titled “Ambivalence Saves The Day” is the systematization of chaos through the acceptability of dissonance, lightening the whole structure and ending – idiosyncratically as usual – with Hollenbeck all alone. Yes, you have to appreciate Woodson, an endangered species of musician capable of truly looking forward while maintaining the utmost respect for his roots and influences (he cites Alain Resnais, Samuel Beckett, Morton Feldman, Henri Dutilleux, Ned Rorem, Valentin Silvestrov and Stephen Sondheim among them). This music is at one and the same time beautiful, groundbreaking, inquisitive and hard-headed: if you missed Control and Resistance make sure you don’t miss this.

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