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Kali Fasteau is so versatile – on this CD she plays soprano sax, nai flute, mizmar, piano, synthesizer, violin, cello, and drums, and also sings, and that’s not even all the instruments she plays – that, in terms of fame, I wonder if it works against her: somehow, specialists are easier to absorb and evaluate, just as in baseball the guy with the most home runs and RBI will more often win the MVP award than a well-rounded player who spreads his excellence among more phases of the game. (Then again, playing free jazz hasn’t been an entry to fame for a few decades now, so there’s that too, alas.)
And then there is the paradox that though the instrument she plays best is arguably soprano sax, she has de-emphasized it on recent recordings because she has been working so frequently – and fruitfully – with the great tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan since he moved to New York from his native New Orleans in the wake of Katrina’s devastation. (He has returned – “All profits from the sale of this recording will be donated to The Louis Armstrong School of Jazz in New Orleans, Louisiana, under the Musical Direction of Professor Kidd (Edward) Jordan” – but their musical connection continues.) The flip side of that, happily, is that she is adept at so many ways of complementing Jordan’s talent that their albums together have been wonderfully varied from track to track. And they’ve been masterpieces as well, including this concert disc.
Fasteau has an openness to free expression that has been honed and expanded through 14 years of world travels spent absorbing musical cultures from around the world (besides the U.S.A., she has lived in 18 countries), whether in terms of instruments (nai flute, mizmar) or stylistic approaches. This has a lot to do with her instrumental versatility, but it’s more important, I suspect, in how it has taught her to live in the music moment even as it has simultaneously instilled a range of disciplines. When one plays a single instrument well, one’s musical expression is usually tightly tied to the physical process of playing it, which often firmly bounds the associated mental process of improvisation; Fasteau is free from that, and never seems to slip into familiar patterns of expression. However, she is genuinely adept on all of her instruments – this is not the slapdash sloppiness of Ornette Coleman’s violin playing, for example.
There are nine tracks on this CD; Fasteau doesn’t play the same instrument on any of them. Variety of timbre is a given. But with Jordan on most tracks, always playing tenor sax, and with superb drummer Baker (his 25 years of professional performing experience still leaves him as the junior member of this trio!) rhythmically anchoring every track, neither is the effect one of incoherence, of no thread holding together the album as a whole.
It kicks off with the unmistakable keening of the mizmar (Arabic reed), solo, initiating a roiling track of free improvisation after Jordan and Baker join in, their playing mirroring the swirling sound of the mizmar. On “Trancendance,” Fasteau again starts things off by herself, this time on the strings inside the piano with a combination of plucking, scraping, and knocking. Jordan joins with quiet flurries where his timbre and the shapes of his musical gestures are as important as his note choices. When Baker joins, his contributions remain minimal and restrained, keeping the track’s quiet intimacy. When Fasteau moves to the keyboard of the piano, the piece turns recognizably modal, at first like McCoy Tyner in one of his less thickly textured moments, contrasting with freer sections.
One of the standout tracks, because it sounds the least like the rest, is “Reed Trance Plant,” with Fasteau on flute and Baker on talking drum as Jordan sits it out; the flute is electronically treated in real time and Fasteau’s phrases overlap, moving forward as little successions of waves. “Received Wisdom” opens with a duet of cello and tenor sax squiggles suggesting the wheeling flight of birds; Baker again tailors (no pun intended) his playing to the established tone with light skitterings.
Fasteau’s synthesizer on “Sibelius Suite” is set to a kind of glittering harp tone (later becoming more like orchestral strings) around which Baker lays out cymbal rolls as Jordan keens Coltranesquely. “Talking Trance” electronically treats and multiplies Fasteau’s wordless vocals, altering range so that it sounds like men and women at times. “Violit Violines” finds the same technology applied to her fiddling; on both, Baker’s contributions are listed but barely heard, and the effect is of duets with Jordan. There’s plenty of drumming on “Exponential Time,” however, as both Baker and Fasteau are on drums. The multi-rhythmic texture really kicks up the volume, and also gives Jordan plenty of room to blow, making this another highlight. The same doubling effect is felt on the final track, “Sound Science,” but with two saxophones as Fasteau finally moves to soprano sax. She states a beautiful wailing theme, Jordan joins and their lines intertwine, and Baker counterpoints with tom rolls and ride patterns before expanding to a more full-bodied set technique. It’s an exultant conclusion to a triumphant album.
Fasteau will be playing this Tuesday, October 14 at 10 PM at Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery, NYC with CLIF JACKSON (bass), RON McBEE (percussion, berimbau), and guests. This is part of the monthly ESP-Disk series at BPC (usually the second Tuesday of each month), and yes, Fasteau was an ESP artist. As half of the SEA ENSEMBLE, along with then-husband DONALD RAFAEL GARRETT, she made a classic album for them in 1974. Sometimes it’s self-titled, sometimes the same material shows up as We Move Together. It’s not currently in print, but with ESP’s big push over the past year to reestablish its brand in the U.S.A., with many classics reissued and some new recordings as well, it is to be hoped that eventually the issues that currently have the Sea Ensemble album in limbo will be resolved and it will reappear.
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