Jazz CD Reviews

Elliott Sharp – Spectropia Suite: Elliott Sharp Edition Vol. 6 – NEOS

On Spectropia Suite, Elliott Sharp showcases his eclectic tastes as he combines swing jazz with contemporary discord and dissonance.

Published on October 31, 2010

Elliott Sharp – Spectropia Suite: Elliott Sharp Edition Vol. 6 – NEOS

Elliott Sharp – Spectropia Suite: Elliott Sharp Edition Vol. 6 – NEOS 40905, 59:10 [Distr. by Qualiton] ***:

(The ‘31 Band: Rudresh Mahanthappa – alto saxophone; Duane Eubanks – trumpet; Art Baron, Curtis Fowlkes, Steve Swell – trombone; Anthony Coleman – piano; David Hofstra – string bass; Danny Tunick – vibraphone; Don McKenzie – drums, various clarinets, tenor saxophone, guitar, computer processing; Sirius String Quartet: Jennifer Choi, Ester Noh – violin; Ron Lawrence – viola; Tomas Ulrich – cello; Debbie Harry – vocals (track 7))

Guitarist/composer Elliott Sharp has worked at the fringes of jazz, improvisation, avant-garde and neo-classical, released many nonconformist albums and led experimental ensembles since moving to New York City in the late 1970s. Over the decades he has amassed a considerable discography that remains obscure except to a firm, small following.

Spectropia Suite is the sixth volume of Sharp material issued under the NEOS imprint. Each edition emphasizes Sharp’s compositional skills using an assortment of configurations and styles. On Spectropia Suite Sharp utilizes two groups: a large outfit dubbed The ‘31 Band, which includes nine musicians, and the Sirius String Quartet; one cut also has vocal contributions from former Blondie singer Debbie Harry.

The 22 tracks, ranging from 30 seconds to four and half minutes, represent a 59-minute suite or score that evolved from cues Sharp wrote for the live interactive performance/art movie, Spectropia, which mixes science fiction with history: it is set in England in 2099 as well as New York City in 1931. The timeframe was the genesis for both The ‘31 Band’s name in addition to the disparate soundtrack, which combines older genres – as Sharp states in the liner notes, “an imagined meeting of the musics of Duke Ellington and Edgar Varèse” – and ambient, noirish soundscapes that echo distressed computers, tortured guitars and other broken-down fixtures of the future.

There are several variations on the main theme, “This Time That Place,” that populate the album. “Now and Then” has an Ellington-esque quality fronted by Anthony Coleman’s piano, Duane Eubank’s clean trumpet and a bright tempo. “What Is When?” has a Charles Mingus/Thelonius Monk-like tone with the horn section (saxophones, trombones, clarinet) riding a changing rhythm often carried by David Hofstra’s lone string bass. There are two translations of “This Time That Place.” The first has a modern sheen accented by bubbling electronics, Don McKenzie’s reverbed guitar and Harry’s jazz lounge vocals. The second alternative is a fine, slow piano solo by Anthony Coleman. The concise “Then Again” reprises the “Now and Then” Depression-era sway; the noisy, droning guitar piece “Place & Time” replicates Sharp’s angular, caustic solo excursions. At the other end of the spectrum is Coleman’s beautiful, classically-tinged piano ballad “Stairway to When,” a memorable showcase for the keyboardist. The rest of the set vacillates from dissonance (discordant strings snake through “Folding” and twinned electric guitars volley through “Somewhen”) to ambience (processed strings and horns mist through “Records Room” while blurry trumpet and vibes create a shadowy landscape during “XYZ Theme”) and there are a number of jazzy interludes such as “Chaos Ball” that mimic Kansas City’s pre-war swinging jazz.

Overall, Spectropia Suite is as disorienting as the cinematic creation it is drawn from. Sharp’s followers might find The ‘31 Band’s hot swing too far removed from the adventurousness expected from a Sharp project. Jazz fans will probably discover the deliberately anarchic, eclectic elements difficult to embrace. On the Spectropia Suite Sharp proves, as usual, that he is not for all tastes.

1. Spectropia Overture
2. Folding
3. Now and Then
4. Records Room
5. What Is When?
6. Crossed Lines
7. This Time That Place
8. Somewhen
9. Then Again
10. Ostinato & Decay
11. Place & Time
12. Stairway to When
13. Sally Random
14. Spectronia
15. Unfolding
16. XYZ Theme
17. Regulator
18. Bubbleburst
19. This Place That Time
20. Crashing
21. Mutanic
22. Chaos Ball

— Doug Simpson

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