Unpredictable, Chicago-styled ensemble improvisation and composition.
Jason Roebke Octet – Cinema Spiral [TrackList Follows] – NoBusiness NBCD 86, 52:39 [9/16/16] ****:
(Greg Ward – alto saxophone; Keefe Jackson – tenor and sopranino saxophone, contrabass clarinet; Jason Stein – bass clarinet; Josh Berman – trumpet; Jeb Bishop – trombone; Jason Adasiewicz – vibraphone; Jason Roebke – bass; Mike Reed – drums)
Listening to Chicago-based bassist Jason Roebke’s sophomore octet album, Cinema Spiral, is like reading an interconnected short story collection (think Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, for example). That’s because Roebke’s seven linked pieces share commonality, and flow from tune to tune. The film-inclined title is also reflected in the music and track titles, such as the opener, “Looking Directly into the Camera,” “Focusing” and others. Like much of his Chicago jazz compatriots, Roebke pens forward-gazing jazz with a modernist viewpoint. The sizeable line-up plus the intensely dynamic arrangements provide a Mingus-esque style. Roebke wrote his long-form opus with his group in mind, which comprises some of Chicago’s notable jazz artists: alto saxophonist Greg Ward; Keefe Jackson (on tenor and sopranino saxophone, as well as contrabass clarinet); bass clarinetist Jason Stein; trumpeter Josh Berman; trombonist Jeb Bishop; vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz; and drummer Mike Reed. Most of these musicians lead their own bands and all are adventurous, likeminded musicians. And several of them have performed in each other’s groups, so the sympathetic communication is replete throughout.
“Looking Directly into the Camera” is a fine instance of how Roebke’s music can take unexpected courses. There’s an initial billow of instruments, which subsides and is replaced by an extensive bass solo. The other instruments rejoin at a gradual pace, beginning with a bowed, droning vibraphone, then breathy horns. The music is frequently ambient and atmospheric, and showcases Roebke’s ability to create organizational strategies which can include many instruments or only a few, and generate intimacy and dissonance. By the end of the tune, the whole octet adds to the musical mixture. “Looking Directly into the Camera” segues into the noirish “Focusing.” There’s a sense of tension present during “Focusing,” where some instruments seemingly clash against each other; the tempo changes and shifts; and there is a sense of menace, as if something is about the occur which may not be welcoming. Some jazz fans may not appreciate “Focusing,” since it has the kind of experimental and compositional approach which could leave some people cool and unresponsive.
The most cinematic—and most traditionally evolving number—is “For a Moment,” which is comparable to something which might have caressed through a Hitchcock production (one can imagine this in Vertigo, gracing shots of the San Francisco fog and James Stewart’s lonely vigil). Roebke’s gliding bass is meshed with floating vibes, Reed’s lithe and light percussive effects, and low notes from the horns. The complete opposite slant is used during the free jazz-tinted “People Laughing,” which includes a maniacal introduction where the various horns mirror or echo ferocious and uncontrollable laughter. This is music for a literal bedlam, a place where the locks have been smashed, the inmates have taken over, and reason has disappeared. But that’s only in the first half. Slightly paranoiac calm embalms the tune’s second section, where nearly inaudible snoring noises are replicated via some horns, as if the patients have drowsed off (akin to the scene in the movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, when the nighttime party in the asylum ward is over and everyone has fallen asleep).
Roebke concludes with the two memorable pieces. First is the vibrant “Waiting,” where he utilizes his octet with an almost orchestrated direction (similar to Duke Ellington or the aforementioned Mingus). The arrangement builds and builds, with a plethora of musical coloring and ascending sounds. At times it’s as if Roebke supplies no sure path and allows the players to be as unconstrained as they want to go. And yet there is a foundation, if a bit deliberately unsteady. Roebke finishes with the melodic-to-discordant “L’acmé.” The not-quite nine-minute track moves from a lyrical start to a noisy affair with a chiming vibraphone, squalling saxes, edgy trumpet, contorting bass clarinet and Reed’s jittery drumming. It resembles a wall of sound, everything swirling up, down and all around. But Roebke doesn’t stay with the whirlwind, but rather coils down and decelerates at the end to a melodic bass/vibes duet.
TrackList: Looking Directly into the Camera; Focusing; For a Moment; Getting High; People Laughing; Waiting; L’acmé