Susquehanna Ensemble,
Conversations: Music by Thomas Reese
(Wyndfall, 2001)

[Editor's note: The album described in the following review is more classical in nature than jazz. It is found here, in the Rambles jazz section, because A) the musicians involved are primarily jazz artists, and B) we don't have a classical music section. We hope you'll enjoy it despite any confusion!]

Here's something you don't hear every day (but after you do, you may want to): a quartet made up of flute (Thomas Grant Reese), oboe (Martha Pineno Hess), viola (Debra Anderson) and cello (Laurie Haines Reese). It's certainly an uncommon aggregation, and it makes for a distinctive and lovely sound.

The music on this CD is, as you might imagine from the instrumentation, geared toward contemporary classical, which the first track, "Far Away," makes clear. The first thing you become aware of in listening to this music is the mellow, woody tone of this combination of instruments. Though the music is often bold and challenging, it is never less than a delight to listen to. And it is indeed a "conversation" between the instruments. There is a sense of give and take, of ideas offered and accepted, of themes shared and multiplied, and it is this sense that makes the CD so worthy of close listening.

"Dialog" is a flute solo by Tom Reese, reminiscent of Stravinsky at his most playful (and, I have to confess, of the theme from Gilligan's Island). The title track is a profoundly beautiful piece, with some glorious chord changes and a sumptuous blending of the individual voices. I don't know if this particular instrumental combination has been used before, but it's one that is rich in aural textures. A glorious and all too brief oboe solo is next, followed by another joint instrumental. Chris Laughery joins the group on vocals and guitar for "Katy's Rambles/Sea of Tranquility," and his gentle, caressing voice proves perfect for the song.

Tom Reese switches to Native American flute for "Awakenings," a duet with cellist Laurie Reese that becomes another deep conversation between two similarly voiced instruments. The full quartet returns with Tom Reese's "Waltz of the Snowflake," a lovely little impressionistic tone poem, of which Ravel or Debussy might have been proud. After a mellow cello solo, there is a long "Lament for Cora Lee" by the ensemble, with sections whose fullness is absolutely orchestral. The only flaw is that there should have been more time between this piece and the final track, which starts a bit abruptly. The "Lament" is so powerful that it should have had more time to reverberate in the listener's mind. That said, "Waltz of the Young Girls" makes a grand final track, and brings back Laughery with a skillfully multi-tracked vocal in which the lines, dream-like, drift into one another.

These Conversations demand to be heard by those who love fine music in any genre. The music is blissful, and the structure of the album is fascinating: there are dialogues such as the duets between couples, and even the occasional soliloquy, but it always comes back to the conversation between the full ensemble, and is always worth overhearing.

[ by Chet Williamson ]
Rambles: 15 February 2002