Alex Cline’s Flower Garland Orchestra – Oceans of Vows – Cryptogramophone 

by | Jul 20, 2017 | Jazz CD Reviews

Alex Cline’s Flower Garland Orchestra – Oceans of Vows [TrackList follows] – Cryptogramophone CG148 (2-CDs) [Distr. by Mack Ave. Records] 64:73, 52:34 [3/10/17] ****:

Spirituality and musicality as one.

(Areni Agabian – voice; Chi Li – erhu, zhonghu, zheng, qin; Jeff Gauthier – electric violin; Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – electric 5-string violin; Maggie Parkins – cello; Will Salmon – flute, recorders; Nels Cline, G.E. Stinson – electric guitars; Wayne Peet – electric piano, organ; Yuka C. Honda – electric keyboards, samples; Scott Walton – bass, keyboard; Brad Dutz – vibraphone, hand drums, crotales, gongs, percussion; Alex Cline – drums, gongs, percussion; Vicki Ray – conductor; Thich Nhat Hanh, Brother Phap Khe, Duc Nguyen, Brother Phap Hai, Sister Dang Nghiem – prerecorded voices)

Faith and spirituality permeate drummer/percussionist Alex Cline’s music. His Buddhist beliefs suffused through The Constant Flame (Cryptogramophone, 2001) and were embedded as elements of Cline’s improvised rendition of Roscoe Mitchell’s long-form work, For People in Sorrow (Cryptogramophone, 2013). Buddhist inspiration and influence are crucial ingredients in Cline’s latest opus, the double-disc project, Oceans of Vows (also Cryptogramophone), credited to Alex Cline’s Flower Garland Orchestra. Like For People in Sorrow, Cline enlisted friends, family and close musical associates including Cryptogramophone label head Jeff Gauthier (electric violin), twin brother Nels Cline (electric guitar), Cline’s wife and Cibo Matto co-founder Yuka Honda (electric keys, samples), a litany of fellow California underground music community people (percussionist Brad Dutz, electric guitarist G.E. Stinson, and others), as well as traditional Asian musicians which include Chi Li (who utilizes Chinese stringed instruments such as the zhonghu) and Buddhist chanters.

Oceans of Vows entails a two-hour suite broken into two parts (hence, two discs), with each part consisting of five movements inspired and/or enclosing Buddhist writing and poetry, comprising four poems by Buddhist teacher and Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, as well as excerpts from the Buddhist text known as the Avatamsaka Sutra (the title is translated into English as Flower Garland Sutra, therefore the name of Cline’s orchestra). This expansive material was initially offered in a live performance at California State University, Northridge’s Plaza del Sol Concert Hall in October, 2015 through a grant awarded to Cline in early 2015. Cline subsequently went into the studio for two days of recording at Bridge Recorders in Glendale, CA.

Cline opens with the 14-minute “The Tree of Enlightenment.” Cline strikes a temple bell multiple times as a sort of invocation, which is followed by a gradual escalation of malleted gongs which rise from a whisper-like wash to a percussive din and fade away to be replaced by augmented guitar chords, and thence a plaintive segment with vocalist Areni Agbabian reciting from the Avatamsaka Sutra. There are moments of freely improvised spaces, harmonic developments in a nearly-symphonic manner, traces of Middle Eastern and Asian tonalities, continual percussion breaks, and Honda’s unearthly samples. Cline’s unified blend of pre-arranged form and improvisational freedom saturates “The Tree of Enlightenment” as well as all or most of the other pieces: this technique provides continuity but also a perspective where anything can happen at any time. Bells, tuned percussion and Li’s employment of Chinese stringed instruments make the 19-minute “A Flash of Lightning” one of the most Asian-inclined segments. Agbabian resumes presenting text from the Avatamsaka Sutra, including the Zen lines, “This is because that is; that is because this is. This is not because that is not; that is not because this is not.” “A Flash of Lightning” is one of the stronger melodic sections, with both philosophical lyrics and splendid music, and when the ensemble chants there is a profound articulation which is transcendent. CD 1’s second half has “The Voice of the Buddha,” where Salmon’s acoustic flute and Agbabian’s singing juxtapose with Stinson’s electric slide guitar. A sense of contrast and correlation also courses through “The Old Mendicant,” where Gauthier’s electric violin is set alongside Li’s zheng (another Chinese stringed instrument): the two artists manufacture a resonance infused with ancient times as well as modernity. CD 1 concludes with “We Will Be Back Again,” which touches on Miles Davis fusion territory due to a confident groove emphasized by wah-wah guitar and brawny drumming. Nels Cline fans will probably enjoy this tune, since Cline exhibits his six-string erudition and manipulates his various digital effects.

CD 2 continues with Cline’s disparities of quiet and loud, and improvised and composed music. For example, the six-minute “The Incalculable,” begins with a rock-jazz, riff-notched introduction, while organist Wayne Peet creates a prog rock-like keyboard tone. Still, the piece ends on a refined and restful calmness. Another track which embodies Buddhist learning is the nine-minute “Interbeing,” where Alex Cline showcases a gentler, malleable mannerism and moderate melodic quality, accentuated by Maggie Parkins’ cello and Will Salmon’s flute; some tuned, soothing bells; and Agbabian’s mellifluous cadences as she delivers another Buddhist poem. The Flower Garland Orchestra completes the program with the “The Ten Great Aspirations of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva.” At 23 minutes, it is the lengthiest and most comprehensive piece.

Engineer Rich Breen helps bring Cline’s multi-tiered project to audiophile vibrancy. Breen’s attention to audio details conveys vividness to every layer (or often numerous layers) and each musician’s contribution can be discerned as a portion of the album’s rich musical fabric. Oceans of Vows is Cline’s most notable recording, a spacious, diverse and surely inspiring work. The Cryptogramophone label is renowned (or should be) for its aesthetically discreet and well-designed packaging. Oceans of Vows is in a clamshell box, with artwork on the front, credits and titles on the back. Inside are the two CDs plus two booklets. One has the texts which are recited or sung throughout the suite. The other booklet has full production data, extensive and informative liner notes by Cline and friend, musical associate and fellow Buddhist Peter Kuhn [who does not play on Oceans of Vows]; 17 pages of color photos from the live Northridge performance, plus a group picture from the studio sessions.

CD 1: 
The Tree of Enlightenment
A Flash of Lightning
The Voice of the Buddha
The Old Mendicant
We Will Be Back Again

CD 2:
The Flower Bank World
The Incalculable
The Ten Great Aspirations of Samantabhadra Bodhisattva

—Doug Simpson

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