The Keith Yaun Quartet,
Amen: Improvisations
on Messiaen

(Boxholder, 1999)

Classical jazz projects are, as the sleeve notes to this one gamely admit, a rather risible business. Yet here it is anyway; an album of Messiaen's music, reduced and arranged for a quartet whose members are strong on improvisation.

Of course, this isn't the kind of twee little project which culls favourite tunes from a long-dead composer's repertoire and swings 'em. Messiaen, for a start, wasn't much interested in tunes of the sort the milkman hums while doing his rounds, and the members of this quartet, although actually rather varied, are not the gurning tuxedoed lounge lizards who crank out Brahms lullabies or Tschaichovsky lollipops for a roomful of cocktail barflies.

Indeed, guitarist Keith Yaun has focused heavily on Messiaen's vertical concerns rather than his melodic or rhythmic ones. All five pieces are slow-moving and very sparse, with the focus on ensemble sound rather than solos. It's not clear whether Yaun has filleted whole harmonic structures out of these pieces (one rather doubts it, although it would certainly be feasible), but there's a sense that, somehow, the music has been summarised rather than abbreviated, boiled down rather than merely cut into portions.

In fact, though, it's best not to think of this record as having anything to do with Messiaen at all. It doesn't sound like anyting he might have composed anyway. Listening to it instead purely as a quartet album of lightly-composed free jazz is a somewhat more enlightening approach to take.

In this light, it's Johnny McLellan who first stands out. His drumming is sharp, punctual, rhythmic without implying any pulse, and full of space. Choosing to play up-front but leave room for others was much better than the walk-on-eggshells alternative. His voice is a dynamic, very involving one here, and at many times it's the most prominent one, too. He makes a very impressive contribution to this frankly drummer-unfriendly music which is worth the price of admission on its own.

Mat Maneri isn't an audibly pushy player, but he does know how and when to grab the spotlight. Here, on baritone violin (which adds much of the viola's range to the fiddle), he plays long, microtonally shifting notes for much of the time, bursting out just occasionally to add a more soloistic statement. He glues this music together, and without him much of it simply wouldn't work.

As for the two guitarists, the word here is "understated," a fact which may surprise those who think of Bern Nix only as a member of Prime Time. This said, however, he lends a very Ornettish slant to the material which is entirely appropriate. Yaun himself can be a less sure-footed player with slightly uncertain articulation, but his musical ideas are strong. This context, which allows him to underplay and doesn't impose the rigors of the solo spot, suits him well.

This is a rather marvellous record and a quite unexpected one. Yaun's previous offering was rather hit-and-miss, exposing the guitarist too much and restricting him to a free jazz genre which is clearly a bit narrow for him. The music on this disk is, on the contrary, open and spacious, with the emphasis on ensemble interactions evolving over extended time-periods (the five pieces are all between nine and fifteen minutes long). The results speak for themselves. Highly recommended.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]
Rambles: 9 February 2002