Over the course of several decades now, New York City alto saxophonist/composer patrick brennan has been developing a system of structured improvisation centered on the generative possibilities inherent in the dynamic interaction of multiple, rhythm-focused melodic cells. One of the most important vehicles for his exploration in this area has been the ensemble s0nic 0penings, which he first put together in 1979 and which appears here as the quintet of brennan, on alto saxophone, along with longtime collaborators double bassist Hilliard Greene; trumpeter and fluegelhornist Brian Groder; pianist Rod Williams; and drummer Michael TA Thompson. Their performance of brennan’s composition tilting curvaceous brings the composer’s polyrhythmic motifs to life in an exciting, musically effective way.
Although tilting curvaceous was conceived of as a single piece, on this recording it has been segmented into fourteen parts. While this was done for more or less expedient reasons having to do with presenting the work in radio- and podcast-friendly excerpts, it has the advantage of putting the mechanism of the cells’ combinatorial chemistry into sharp relief. Not only do the shorter tracks allow individual cells to be easily grasped as discrete entities, but they also let us pick out the cells’ interactions and changing aggregations across subsets of the ensemble under well-delineated conditions. Adding to this is the fact that brennan’s orchestration, which frequently involves having piano and bass work together to lay out each piece’s structural skeleton, goes far to give his compositional structures their audible transparency.
We can hear how brennan’s combinatorial logic works from the very first piece. Bass and piano open by stating one cell in repeated unison; they are soon joined by trumpet and saxophone weaving a countermelody in and out and in between the notes of that initial motif. The horns break off into separate contrapuntal lines, rejoin and then diverge again. All the while, the drums play a free pulse before bringing the section to an end in a solo. The fourth section, a trio for bass, piano, and drums, has the bass sketching out a cell and its variations under a piano solo; throughout, piano and bass pass recognizable fragments of a motif and is variations between them. Section eleven divides the ensemble into bass and piano on one side and the two horns on the other, each side playing its cell against the off-beats of the other. Here as elsewhere in the set, Greene’s clear and unhurried statement of the cells as points of reference is the fulcrum on which the ensemble’s playing balances. The twelfth piece moves into freer territory, beginning with a solo from Greene before developing into a trio for brennan’s hard-blown soloing over bass and drums. The brief closing piece, a solo for brennan, presents tilting curvaceous’ animating concept in its most compellingly spare form.