CD+DVD Reviews

Alex Cline – For People in Sorrow – Cryptogramophone (CD + DVD)

A teenager’s inspiration re-imagined as an exploratory homage.

Published on June 10, 2013

Alex Cline – For People in Sorrow – Cryptogramophone (CD + DVD) CR-CG146, – CD: 67:42 + DVD: 70:14 [3/19/13] ****:

(CD & DVD: Oliver Lake – saxophone, flute; Vinny Golia – woodwinds; Dan Clucas – cornet, flute; Dwight Trible – voice; Jeff Gauthier – electric violin, co-executive producer; Maggie Parkins – cello; Mark Dresser – bass; Myra Melford – piano, harmonium; Zeena Parkins – harp; G. E. Stinson – electric guitar, electronics; Sister Dang Nghiem – chant, bell; Alex Cline – drums, percussion, producer; Will Salmon – conductor; Larry Ward – opening poem)

The majority of musicians have their inspirations and influences: perhaps a professor who taught them about music; or an older artist who acted as mentor; or a specific musical idol they favored over others. For Los Angeles-based percussionist/drummer/composer Alex Cline, one of the most profound, life-changing moments in his late-‘70s teenage years was discovering the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s iconic, 40-minute, album-length epic People in Sorrow, taped in 1969 when the group lived and worked in Paris, France. The mainly-improvised music is, even now, disconcerting free jazz which manipulates interior and exterior space, deploys multi-reed dynamics, and offers a broad assortment of emotions, from tranquility to turbulence, and more than four decades later, is appreciated predominantly by avant-garde fans.

Cline considered giving homage to People in Sorrow for several years, but states, “Who wants to remake a masterpiece? People do it all the time.” He felt the result would have “to be deeply personalized” and “to be referential enough so as to pay the original its due respect while still diverting enough so that it becomes something new and different.” Another goal was to introduce the extended number to people unaware of the piece, who might find it as significant and acutely moving as Cline did and continues to do. The re-imagined project was presented as part of the 2011 Angel City Jazz Festival, and was taped and filmed October 2, 2011 at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater), at the Walt Disney Concert Hall complex. In early 2012, the Cryptogramophone label issued Cline’s undertaking as a CD + DVD dubbed For People of Sorrow.

Cline’s re-interpretation is not an imitative recreation. The initial quartet configuration was conceived by trumpeter Lester Bowie, bassist Malachi Favors, and both Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman on various reeds. Cline decided to expand the line-up to 11 participants, who use harmonium, sax, flutes, woodwinds, cornet, violin, cello, bass, piano, harp, guitar, voice, and percussion.  There is also a pre-recorded guest. Cline explains, “I knew it was going to be a bigger ensemble simply because of the way I was hearing it in my head. The orchestration I knew was going to include sounds that were not in the original.” He further notes, “I also knew that sounds that I really liked on the original I wouldn’t be able to reproduce.” In another notable feat, Cline chose to repeat instances which appear on the original recording, which is no easy accomplishment, since he had to write and arrange music which was initially spontaneously improvised.

While the DVD (at just over 70 minutes) is slightly longer than the CD (which clocks in at 67 minutes), both include the same music. The DVD has 16 chapter stops, so a person can fast forward or go back to sections of the ambitious opus: however, there is no menu option (one must view the film and shift forward or move backward while watching the performance). The CD has only two tracks: an opening poem and the 63-minute For People in Sorrow production. Both the CD and DVD begin with a four-minute, grief-rimmed, spoken-word segment, “A Wild Thing,” especially written for this endeavor and orated by Larry Ward.

The music commences quietly, with a small gong, Zeena Parkins’ lightly plucked harp, Cline’s delicate ethnic percussion (his impressive percussion collection can be seen during the video), and unhurriedly other instruments enter: Mark Dresser’s sonorous acoustic bass, Dwight Trible’s occasional wordless vocalizations (at times he sounds similar to an otherworldly oboe, and other times moans with scat-like vigor), Myra Melford’s concise piano chords, and so on. The proceedings slowly intensify as the horns and G.E. Stinson’s electric guitar add input; as Cline’s percussion escalates; and as conductor Will Salmon flashes cards to the players (presumably Brian Eno-esque cues to alter or adjust through the improvised sections). This is when the extensive composition acquires full flight, with overlapping instrumentation, and an eagerly active approach takes center stage. Even when Dresser does a bass solo, he slaps his strings with nearly violent abandon, matched by Parkins’ dissonant slashes on the harp, and her sister Maggie’s equally discordant cello. But Cline never completely allows the presentation to lose equilibrium: he maintains a somber, graceful theme as a recurrent foundation: the motif ebbs and flows, exits and re-enters. The dynamics increase again when Stinson delivers a graphic slide guitar solo. The horns reach a crescendo about a half hour in, with Oliver Lake soaring during a typically astringent solo.

It is also at this point when a multimedia aspect is established, as a video screen in the background is switched on and the indistinct shape of Buddhist nun Sister Dang Nghiem (affectingly called Sister D) is projected: in the pre-filmed component, she supplies a resounding, struck bell and a Vietnamese chant (related to funeral services) which can be heard as the music gradually fades. But the nun can barely be seen: this probably functioned better at the venue: the visual characteristic does not work in the DVD format. As Sister D’s mantra disappears, the chant’s melodic refrain is echoed by the strings (bass, cello and Jeff Gauthier’s electric violin), which bring about the most mellifluous portion. For People in Sorrow wraps up with a wall-of-sound style where everyone improvises; a no-holds-barred device which copiously exploits the ensemble’s multi-instrument organization. The finalized conclusion decelerates to a near whisper, with tinged percussion, doubled chanting and Cline’s lone gong.

The video quality is professional but not top-notch. The three-camera set-up allows for long shots and lots of close-ups. But low lighting means some footage is dimly lit; cameras were placed off stage, so the awkward video angles have some musicians partially blocked by others in certain sequences (less common, but more annoying, audience member’s heads also are observed in the forefront); intermittently the multiple microphone stands obstruct the cinematography; and there are some inadvertently inept zoom-ins and zoom-outs. The audio on both the CD and DVD is superb. The REDCAT’s distinguished acoustics are on ample display. The multi-microphone arrangement conveys clarity and nuanced facets, which is important since there are loud instruments (electric guitar), balanced against subtle instruments (flute or gently brushed percussion). Cryptogramophone’s thoroughness is showcased in the packaging, with a 28-page, color booklet with Cline’s comprehensive liner notes; the text of Ward’s poem; an English translation of Sister D’s chant; technical information and credits; and concert photos.

CD: A Wild Thing; People in Sorrow
DVD: 16 DVD chapter stops (but no menu), representing different sections of the epic piece

—Doug Simpson

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