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Monday, August 08, 2005
Two from OmniTone
OmniTone is a small record label based in Brooklyn that promises "all the shapes, all the tones, all the time." While even with the rosiest of outlooks one might find such a mission statment unrealistic, the label does support a wide variety of artists pushing jazz in new directions while remaining grounded in accessibility. Below are two examples from their recent catalog.

Moving Forward, Standing Still
Jamie Baum Septet
OmniTone 15206

Jamie Baum knows her Stravinsky, and boy does she not want you to forget it. Quotes and influences from Le Sacre du Printemps are all over this CD, and the second track (called "Spring Rounds," natch) centers around a jazzy riff on the famous bassoon solo that opens the old coot's masterwork. Considering that Stravinsky was one of the alleged authors of the oft-cited adage that "good composers borrow, great composers steal," one supposes that it is only appropriate that he would have his most recognizable tunes pilfered by composers some 90 years or so his junior. Hell, I used an electrified version of the beginning of The Firebird to open the piece I wrote for my college senior project, a compositional gambit that I'm sure all of three people found clever. Anyway, while "Spring Rounds" does suffer from a vibe more Emerson, Lake and Palmer or Frank Zappa (ever heard "In-a-gadda-Stravinsky"?) than Luciano Berio, an subsequent track called "Medley: From Scratch/Primordial Prelude," integrates Stravinsky's source material with far greater success. Baum shrouds the theme from Rite of Spring's fourth movement with tribal sounding rhythms and nervous outbursts in the brass, taking the composer's idea and truly extending it rather than simply vamping on it as she does in "Spring."

Ultimately, Baum is at her best when her material is wholly original, as in the bouncy "In The Journey" or the lyrical "Clarity." Her ensemble features a fascinating collection of wind and brass instruments, with Baum's flute balancing and blending nicely against the trumpet, alto sax, and French horn with the help of modern recording technology. The album was recorded live in the studio, which is an impressive achievement even if occasional ensemble imperfections are noticeable from time to time. I do, however, get a certain sense of unrealized potential from Moving Forward, Standing Still, as if this is a portrait of an artist whose best work is yet to come. Baum's talent is undeniable, but on this disc it shines through in spits and spurts rather than in one continuous stream of excellence. I look forward to hearing what she has up her sleeve next. Rating: 7.5

Sleep Won't Come
John McNeil
OmniTone 15208

Have you ever had trouble falling asleep? John McNeil apparently does all the time (the pictures included with the album's liner notes show the composer/trumpeter in various states of bleary-eyed dishevelment), and Sleep Won't Come is a 50-minute paean to wakefulness. Hardcore insomniacs will recognize the broad range of moods that accompany the phenomenon--doleful exhaustion, itchy anxiousness, peaceful detachment, punchy hilarity--represented throughout the album's eleven tracks. It's hard to tell whether this is truly a concept album as such or simply a theme covering a few tunes that the composer decided to superimpose over the entire collection, but it makes for an entertaining contextual framework and that's frankly good enough for me.

Though McNeil is ostensibly the star on Sleep Won't Come, I found the most compelling music on this disc to be that which highlighted the excellent piano work of Jeff Jenkins. From the tone-cluster monster merengue in "The Other World" to the Ligeti-meets-Cage high register prepared piano tinkling in "Wired Together" (a tune penned by Jenkins himself), McNeil's sideman comes dangerously close to stealing the show at multiple points. The talents of the band come together most impressively on "Each Moment Remains," a meditative piece with wandering piano arpeggios, a devastating muted trumpet melody, and some nice bass work from the otherwise under-the-radar Kent McLagan.

Overall, the quality of the album is very consistent, with no real clunkers and a number of nice moments. A solid choice for the discerning record consumer. Rating: 8


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