AMN Reviews: Anna Webber – Idiom (2021; Pi Recordings)

About a year ago, I started having a Pavlovian reaction to news of a release from Anna Webber – it automatically gets placed in my “must listen” list regardless of what form it takes. Recently, these forms have been a raw live recording (Rectangles), a co-led big band (Both Are True), and complex chamber jazz constructed from fragments of sound (Clockwise). This is in addition to two recordings with her Simple Trio, consisting of herself, Matt Mitchell on piano, and John Hollenbeck on drums, as well as numerous side-projects.

Her compositional approach on Idiom is similar to that of Clockwise, and is centered around woodwind-generated extended techniques. As aptly stated in the liner notes, these are “any non-traditional way of producing sound on an instrument, including the use of multiphonics, alternate fingerings, key clicks, overblown notes, and the like.” With such compositional elements, “Webber set out to create a continuum between her compositional and improvisatory vocabulary, orchestrating these effects across the ensemble, and applying them to different instruments [and] to generate chords and scales and, overall, gave license to utilize other naturally occurring sounds.” Indeed, Clockwise featured Idiom II, the first release of a track using this approach.

But on this double album, Webber fully explores her Idiom system, with five new pieces. The first four (Idioms I, III, IV, and V) are performed by her Simple Trio, while Idiom VI is a 60+ minute suite for large ensemble. And perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the recording is that you don’t need to know any of the above in order to be able to enjoy it. If complex cross-genre composition and improvisation makes your brain happy, Idiom is a satisfying listen without knowing its origin story.

Starting at the beginning, the album of trio pieces kicks off with Idiom I. This offering involves spiraling flute and piano lines that morph into jaggedly labyrinthine themes and rhythms before returning in various forms. Mitchell and Webber seem to be of an alike mind, in the sense that they both compose and perform a wide array of dense contrapuntal music that gracefully navigates both inside and outside styles. Not to mention Hollenbeck being the perfectly versatile drummer that such a trio would need, knowing when to stretch Webber’s structured rhythms.

Even from just this first track, you can feel the tension dripping off of Webber’s writing. While melodic in moments, she grabs at your nerves and attention. This is further exemplified in Idiom III, which features a set of punctuated and discordant sax drones over taut piano and drum rhythms. Webber goes on to use these structures for developing intricate themes and variations thereof, as well as room for her and Mitchell to solo. Mitchell is even given the task of a percussive mini-concerto interlude with Hollenbeck. But perhaps my favorite track from the trio is Forgotten Best, the only non-Idiom piece. It is a vehicle for Webber to improvise over propulsive drumming from Hollenbeck and exploratory piano from Mitchell, and is perhaps the easiest nine minutes of listening across both albums. “Easy” is a relative notion, of course.

Moving on to the ensemble recordings, they consist of 6 movements and 4 interludes titled Idiom VI. Her outfit includes a number of well-known and up-and-coming musicians, including Nathaniel Morgan (saxophone), Yuma Uesaka (saxophone and clarinet), Adam O’Farrill (trumpet), David Byrd-Marrow (horns), Jacob Garchik (trombone), Erica Dicker (violin), Joanna Mattrey (viola), Mariel Roberts (cello), Liz Kosack (synthesizer), Nick Dunston (bass) and Satoshi Takeishi (drums). Eric Wubbels conducts.

Webber employs subgroups of this ensemble to create layered drones and staccato melodies. Here, the extended techniques are more clear and in the forefront, with distorted blowing and angular synths over pounding rhythms. But these efforts frequently stray into areas that would fit in the 20th-century classical bucket, for example, the breathy and scratchy textures of Interlude I. But Movement II, which follows, resembles jazz with Webber on flute navigating through knotty playing from Dunston and Takeishi before evolving into a fugue-like structure. Movement IV is best described as highly-arranged chamber jazz with an angular violin that both wails and soars. This turns into an expose for scraping of the low-end instruments and skittering percussion that has a strangely cinematic feel. Interlude 3 & Movement V are more ambient in nature, with long-held tones and layers of drones before breaking out into a dense set of simultaneous solos over full-ensemble structures. It goes without saying that unpacking Webber’s endeavors will take multiple listens…and probably years of calendar time.

Not unlike Anthony Braxton, Webber is not just a composer or improviser. She is designing her own musical systems from which pieces can be generated for virtually any number and combination of instruments. And the world is that much richer for it. Idiom is an easy album-of-the-year candidate.