Sunday, November 1, 2009

Elliot Levin / Seesaw Ensemble - Elliot Levin Meets the Seesaw Ensemble

Philadelphia dreadlocked reedman Levin and San Diego jazz spiritualists the Seesaw Ensemble team up on this Porter Records release that came out over the summer. I've never heard either one of these acts and so may fail to catch some of the dynamics of the collaboration, but with a quick glance at bios and track names, I predict a late Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders vibe, which means this should be awesome.

And "Unlacquered..." delivers. Plus a heaping dose of psyched-out Rhodes or some such. There is a heavy drug-jazz feel, but the soloists are lyrical enough to demonstrate that they are not stoned. Levin's role is apparently analogous to Sanders in Alice Coltrane's early records, but his tone is deeper, not as piercing. Levin is just as serious and urgent as Sanders, but there is no panic. The ensemble behind him, of which only the Rhodes seems to step forward, is thick and bruising.

"Last (Lady)..." is a direct homage to Mrs. Coltrane. This is a slow swinging, dark and brooding piece. There is no screaming here and the Rhodes is replaced by piano, lots of heavy left-hand blocks with bowed bass to beef it up even more. The playing is not as free here as the last piece, but Levin and another saxophonist both have plenty of room to stretch out, and neither over-does it. The drum kit is being beaten hard, like doom metal on flimsy cymbals. The bassist puts the bow away and walks through the dark, chordless murk and the playing escalates to freedom only at moments before the reedists bring things back down to "earth" with sinister tenor sax harmony.

"6,000 Names For Your Baby" enters like a serial killer, with screeching bowed cymbals. A brief pause and the whole ensemble goes wherever they please over the kit's explosive pitter-patter, led by the growling dual saxes. Free destruction reigns, though you get the sense that some of the players tire of it quickly, with the occasional reversion of the bassist and drummer to a few seconds of pocket-formation.

"Never Yet... Ever Get..." is getting some manipulation in the booth. Flute and ancient cymbal clangs are filtered through reverse delay, a dreadful and horrific effect. Terrifying like being covered in spiders. A street-lurker narrative ensues; some of the words slip by, rendered inaudible by the desensitizing terror. And then the narrative in reverse. "E.E.Y. of E.I.T." feels like the day after the disaster. Levin's blues-tinged phrasing leads the three-piece tune for a few minutes before the rest of the ensemble joins in. His build into fantastic arpeggios uplifts, but is brought back down into woe with the tight, minor harmony he seems to have with this group. When the players lock in, ever so briefly, things get seriously mournful, like a martyr's wake. It is the counteracting moments of sick virtuosity on the part of both saxophones that lifts things out of the dirge, like a constant throttling; being picked out of the mud just to be piledriven back into it.

"The Grand March", the closing track, swaggers in steady, one high-end cacophony blast, and then otherworldly harmonizing over the theme before Levin solos over the steadiest groove so far on the record. Levin slides in moderately at first before dropping some skronk low tones. He works himself into frenzies only briefly. His counterpart from the Ensemble, on the other hand, is up in the air from the start. Staccato, bird-like blasts chatter over the same groove and gradually build into rage, like a Napoleonic seagull. And then the joint cacophony once again before the groove yields to space-age open chords, eastern chimes, and a lulling Sun Ra vibe. Drums and bass chug away alone, the drums sounding like their outside the room, down the hall during the solo. The groove returns promptly and thick, nasty sax chords make the track's closing statement, richer and smoother on the second pass.

I get the feeling that neither party of the collab got to go as far as they wanted to with this set. I know I hoped for more based on my crudely-informed expectations. Given the physical distance between Seesaw in San Diego and Levin in Philly, this might be a one-off, but the foundation to launch from would be better rooted in future meetings, I'm sure. Nevertheless, this is a decent, weird, nasty piece of new spiritual jazz, and there isn't enough of that out there, so get this.

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