In hindsight, pianist/synthesist Matt Mitchell and drummer Kate Gentile are the perfect combination – both have the ability to effortlessly write and play modern creative music of labyrinthine complexity. Snark Horse is a 6CD boxed set of their works that also features Kim Cass on bass, Ben Gerstein on trombone, Jon Irabagon on saxes and clarinet, Davy Lazar on trumpet and cornet, Mat Maneri on viola, Ava Mendoza on guitar, Matt Nelson on saxes, and Brandon Seabrook on guitar and banjo. Only Mitchell and Gentile perform on all tracks, with the other members of the “Snark Horsekestra” joining in various combinations.
This set gets its title from the name that Mitchell and Gentile have given to their book of compositions, each just one elaborately detailed bar. From these, the participants are encouraged to improvise in an expansive fashion. These improvisations can go on for quite some time despite their relatively concise origins, with several clocking in at over 15 minutes. In a way, this approach resembles that of Riley and Braxton, in that the composer provides a framework that virtually any combination of musicians can carry out, and each reading will be different.
The pieces are roughly divided into three categories – those that were written by Gentile, those that were written by Mitchell, and electronic pieces that were put together by Mitchell based on contributions from each. For the aforementioned reasons, it can be difficult to discern between the first two types, but the third stands out as being even more experimental. Case in point, flock adulation opens with textural patterns of percussive notes coupled with waves of processed sounds that ebb and flow in variations. Other examples of the electronic pieces involve less structured percussion and post-industrial pulses.
But the mainstay of these recordings is what one would expect from Mitchell and Gentile, with the intensity turned up to 11. Piano runs and aggressively thick chording coupled with supple and dense drumming generate an endless supply of multi-voiced themes, each one a brain twister. Peeling back the layers is possible, but requires effort. And then consider that some tracks include four or more additional musicians of a like mind contributing their own convolutions to the mix. Often, these efforts head off in a surprisingly harsh direction – not unpleasant but notably discordant.
Snark Horse is not jazz, not chamber music, not avant-rock, and certainly nothing close to easy listening. It is best thought of as a prime example of how one can stretch modern creative music to the extremes of intricacy. To these ears, it does not get much better than this. Bravo.