Emily Dickinson meets electro-acoustic jazz.
Ergo – As subtle as tomorrow [TrackList follows] – Cuneiform, Rune 419, 42:16 [2/5/16] ***1/2:
(Brett Sroka – trombone, computer, co-mixer; Sam Harris – piano, prepared-piano, Rhodes electric piano; Shawn Baltazor – drums, co-mixer)
To fully appreciate jazz trio Ergo’s fourth release, the 42-minute As subtle as tomorrow, one should also become familiar with Emily Dickinson’s poetry. It’s not a necessary step, but immersion in both Ergo and Dickinson creates an imaginative overlap which accentuates both. In particular, this short text:
As subtle as tomorrow
That never came,
A warrant, a conviction,
Yet but a name.
This brief, tantalizingly philosophical poem is a huge influence on the seven tracks which Ergo co-founder Brett Sroka put together for As subtle as tomorrow [the album title and track titles keep the same capitalization as Dickinson’s poem]. “She’s my favorite poet,” Sroka explains. “There’s something about her simplicity and succinctness and clarity, which is so direct and poignant.” Dickinson’s fragmentary writing formed the foundation for the long-form, seven-section suite which fills the album, like a transparent thread which weaves in and out of reiterating themes and parallel motifs which resurface from track to track. That’s also why the titles of the cuts replicate Dickinson’s verse, such as “That never came” and “a conviction.”
Ergo’s new material follows a footpath similar to previous outings, with both acoustic and electric/digital sounds. Sroka uses real-time sampling, looping and digital manipulation via his computer and commingles them with his trombone, Sam Harris’ acoustic piano and occasional Rhodes electric piano, and Shawn Baltazor’s drums. The result is acoustic-electro jazz with a perceptive structure and freedom, frequently ambient and atmospheric, where silence and space is more important than overreaching technicality or hyperkinetic virtuosity. Sometimes the music is ethereal. For example, the opener, “as tomorrow,” commences with Harris’ echoed and lingering piano notes, as a nuanced electric drone filters beneath and a computer-fashioned bass rhythm settles in, and then Baltazor’s sublime drums glide forth. The outcome is an austere, iridescent soundscape with has a haunting characteristic akin to rock and electronic artists such as Mogwai or Tycho. A comparable, dreamlike demeanor flits through the uneasy, darting “A warrant,” where Sroka’s skitterish electronic dance beats mesh against Baltazor’s equally edgy drum cadence. The notable absence of trombone means there is no respite from the abstracted arrangement.
Sroka’s trombone is the highlight of the somber and stoic “As subtle,” which appears to emanate from a profound fog. There’s a sensation of portent and mortality (analogous to what resides in some of Dickinson’s poetry). In the tune’s second portion, lambent electronics float below Harris’ keyboard as he sensitively nods to classical music (perhaps Stockhausen, who seems to be a kindred spirit). The album’s mood changes during the CD’s latter half. The tempo rises during “That never came,” and the band switches between traditionalism and bursting improvisation during the tune’s last half, where there is a sense of push and pull, moments of chaos and reoccurrences of stability. There is a swinging attitude during “a conviction,” with warm trombone and upbeat piano; intricate rhythms are doled out by Baltazor’s drum fills and Sroka’s pre-programmed digital beats. Take away the electronic buzzes, clicks and noises, and some of the segments of “a conviction” would be conventional jazz work. Someone exclaims at the tune’s close, “That’s some weird jazz.” Indeed, it is far from typical.
The threesome’s awareness of going outside the jazz norm infuses “Yet but,” where conventions are tossed and a nearly free-jazz temperament prevails. The arrangement is enigmatic; the rhythm has a deliberate stop-start force, and both trombone and Harris’ mix of traditional piano and prepared-piano provide what sound like partially-finished riffs, lines and phrases: they’re not incomplete, but the claustrophobic arrangement supplies an uncomfortable reaction. Ergo concludes with the record’s lengthiest piece, the 10:17 “a name,” where the trio amalgamates their avant-garde and jazz leanings into divisions which act as slices of a mini-suite of sorts. The combination of software and acoustic instruments again furnishes an uncertain response, owing to fluctuating pitches, stretched out time signatures, and the overall synthesis of digital and human-crafted music. Sroka maintains listener interest due to a recurring melodic statement, which helps ground the, at-times difficult, composition.
TrackList: as tomorrow; A warrant; As subtle; That never came; a conviction; Yet but; a name.