Patrick ZIMMERLI – Shores Against Silence – Songlines 1619, 38:38 (11/4/16) ****:

(Patrick Zimmerli, tenor sax/ Kevin hays; p./ Larry Grenadier. bass/ Tom Rainey, drums, Satoshi Takeishi, percussion)

Previously unreleased quartet music from 1992 by heady classical/jazz composer Patrick Zimmerli.

Given the technical mastery and expressive range of tenor saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli, it is surprising that he is not better known among the jazz cognoscenti. Perhaps that is because, by choice, he has never had both feet inside jazz. In an interview with Evan Iverson, he explained how his childhood circumstances account for his unusual path in life. Patrick’s older brother was a child prodigy at the piano. When the younger sibling (by three years) was still romping around on his hobby-horse, the older was playing the Well-Tempered Clavier in the nursery. A few years later, instead of making mischief around the neighborhood, the boys studied the scores of the Beethoven Sonatas together.  His brother having already claimed it, the piano was off-limits, but the young Pat took up the saxophone and soon learned to play by ear and to improvise, two bids for autonomy.  As his passion in music took over, he dedicated himself to imitative mastery of the great players–Bird, Rollins, Coltrane, Brecker–a fairly typical progression in becoming a jazz adept.  But his early exposure to classical music informed a predisposition towards composition and innovative design. A fruitful period at Columbia, immersed in the heady modernism of Milton Babbitt, Stockhausen and other musical radicals, broadened his musical horizons considerably.  There followed inevitably a rapprochement between the local culture of improvised music and the heady world of the avant-garde as represented by academia.

In the New York of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the downtown scene was starting to mark itself off from the ascendent mainstream (uptown) revival. Whereas the neo-conservative jazzers, young and old, played in a recognizably jazz idiom and affirmed continuity and legitimacy, the downtown musicians played hard music in small places for little money. It was a time of experimentation and cross-fertilization, but also of contentious debates about who authentically represented the jazz tradition.

It was into this scene that Patrick Zimmerli found his way. He encountered like-minded young players who were sympathetic to his project of fitting the content of jazz into the exacting forms of modern classical composition. It might seem a bit odd to some readers that it was in the area of rhythm that jazz might be informed by white academics with horned-rim glasses.  Not that the enormous intricacies of mixed time and new-fangled notation were the missing ingredients needed to make this new music more popular. In fact, they would push it even further towards impenetrability for the mass audience.  Indeed, Mr. Zimmerli found an ingenious way of combining the rigors of two kinds of hard music.

Still as a young musician, though, he did have an experience that was nothing if not legitimizing; He entered the Thelonious Monk Competition for jazz composition. His piece “Paws,” played by his own band, won first prize. Apparently, panel judge Herbie Hancock, eyes popped open pretty wide, pulled him aside and asked to see his score with a flattering “let me look at that.”  Indeed, it is possible to see sketches of many of the composer’s pieces on-line, and they look forbidding. It is always a bit scary when a composer has to devise a new notation system.

So by the early ‘90s, Patrick Zimmerli had a head full of dense, knotty, highly formal compositional notions. He had scarcely any limitations to his technique. He had friends and collaborators from the downtown scene such as Kevin Hays, Brad Mehldau, Larry Grenadier, and Tom Rainey. He set in motion his plan to compose music for jazz ensemble. What we have in this recording under review is the first iteration of this classical/jazz crossover. As it happens, it was not released in 1992 and lay around for 25 years as a DAT tape while Zimmerli, always on the move artistically, went from one project to the next. It is a most curious time-capsule reissue of a composer and band working on an idea that hardly less strange in 2017 than it was in 1992.

The first track, “The Paw,” sets a jagged melody against a oddly or freely metered accompaniment. It sounds like a through-composed piece. Somehow it combines the feeling of free jazz with the austerity of a formal design. Tom Rainey busily works his drum against the reprise of a subject that lurches against a non-swinging and unstable meter. There is no lack of conviction in the group’s mastery of the intricacies of the composition. It is hard to credit that Mr. Hancock and the other judges saw this as a recognizably “jazz” composition, not to mention a prize-winner. “Three Dreams of Repose” follows with Satoshi Takeishi on percussion. It likewise seems through-composed and is immediately more compelling. There are elements of serialism in the melody, a subject Mr. Zimmerli studied seriously at Columbia. Again the rhythmic complexities prevail but are worked out in a spacious floating time in which a piano dialogues with the dice thrown whole notes of the sax, with a non-linear series of its own. The textures and effects from the drummers are entrancing. I would think that this piece nicely achieves the artistic goals of the project and sounds no less fresh for having languished for quarter of a century.

Suddenly with “Hephaestus,” we are back on familiar ground. It is a tempestuous and swinging piece; One is left doubting how much is improvised, but it certainly sounds like the music of today in its post-bop restlessness and assertiveness. The aptly named “Conceptualysis,” features more devilish counting, shifting meters, and melodic angularity. On the dime, the group collects itself into unison passages and then disperses, each to his own punitive meter tasks.

“Athena” continues the melodic unfriendliness, and we are for the first time not sorry to see that, at a mere 38:38, the time-capsule recording has almost delivered its entire message. While the bass of Larry Grenadier and the superbly-recorded drumming of Tom Rainey are impressive in managing the higher-order demands of the rhythmic concept, the piano of Kevin Hays and the sax of Mr. Zimmerli seem overcommitted to one single formal idea, and that not a particularly communicative one.

“Soft Blues” swings easily, and the melody unfolds in the most recognizable language of all, the blues. The band plays magnificently; the fattest quartet notes ever by Larry Grenadier and delightful blues stylings of Kevin Hays. There is nothing at all original here, but this is as good as it gets. What this piece shows is that Mr. Zimmerli and this band could have been the Uptown marquee jazz quartet back in 1992 if they had worked in this idiom. This piece represents the path not taken.

In fact, Zimmerli stayed true to his muse as a composer.  His career, nicely outlined in the long interview with Iverson, sought completely original formulations for a music that is only limited by the descriptive labels we use. Finally, this release can be enjoyed without reference to questions of jazz history or style, at least by those who have somewhat stretched out ears and like a musical challenge. For those interested in what composers might aspire to in terms of expanding the jazz language, this recording has much to show.

TrackList: The Paw; Three Dreams of Repose; Hephaestus; Conceptualysis; Athena; Soft Blues;

—Fritz Balwit