AMN Reviews: Anna Webber – Clockwise (2019; Pi Recordings)

I have to admit being hooked by the description of how Anna Webber developed her new album, Clockwise. She considered works for percussion by 20th-century composers, such as Xenakis, Feldman, Varése, Stockhausen, Babbitt, and Cage. Then, she “isolat[ed] particular moments that could be extracted and developed into new works” for a jazz ensemble. In particular, she had her collaborators produce unusual sounds from their instruments using extended techniques, and these snippets served as the raw elements for the pieces herein. Armed with these, Webber was able to produce a wide range of strucutres, moods, and timbres.

At a high level, this is a similar approach to that of Webber’s 2016 trio recording Binary. There, she used technology to translate various non-musical sources into musical patterns. But on this recording, the compositional process was more organic and larger in scope as she was writing for a seven-piece outfit. The result involves brain-bending complexity combined with a subtle playfulness.

Case in point, Kore II leads off the album with spiraling counterpoint that sounds like a roomful of robots ambulating about according to their own rhythms. In contrast, Kore I is the final track and involves a more steady pace with “vocalized” trombone and a number of overlapping jazz-inflected themes. Both pieces were derived from Xenakis’s Persephassa, but take that source material in different directions.

Credit goes to Webber for choosing a proper set of co-conspirators from the New York creative music scene. In addition to Webber on sax and flute, the album features Jeremy Viner on sax and clarinet, Jacob Garchik on trombone, Christopher Hoffman on cello, Matt Mitchell on piano, Chris Tordini on bass, and Ches Smith on drums and percussion. Mitchell also appeared on Binary and seems to have a knack of showing up on these densely-packed and unconventional jazz recordings.

As with many efforts of this ilk, it can be difficult (if not impossible) for the listener to determine the exact line between where Webber’s compositions end and the improvisation begins. While Clockwise clearly focuses on the former, the latter does exist (on King of Denmark I / Loper for example) but in a controlled fashion. Instead, Webber has gifted us with a mystery – a puzzle that will require our careful attention to begin to understand, but one that is not meant to be solved. Multiple listenings might be able to begin to peel the layers off of these compositions, but the subtleties and details are so well integrated into the whole that Webber’s conscientious logic might remain indeterminate.

A brilliant effort and an early candidate for album of the year.

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