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james coleman | greg kelley | tatsuya nakatani | vic rawlings | bhob rainey | liz tonne | the undr quartet | zuihitsu

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James Coleman

Zuihitsu
Sedimental / SEDCD30

James Coleman (theremin), Greg Kelley (trumpet), Tatsuya Nakatani (percussion), Vic Rawlings (cello, sarangi, electronics), Bhob Rainey (saxophone), Liz Tonne (voice), The Undr Quartet

This isn’t quite what it looks like from the lineup; a sextet session, that is. Indeed, there isn’t a single track on which all six musicians appear. Instead, Coleman has arranged for them to feature in an ever-changing sequence of duets and trios, with the Undr Quartet augmenting quartets on two tracks only. The pieces are all brief, free-form improvisations characterised by lots of space.

Coleman himself is a very restrained player, and his instrument only serves to emphasise the gestural nature of his style. Like all thereminists, he sometimes uses a wide vibrato and slides into notes with big swooping movements. He does not, however, have much use for the sustained sounds to which the instrument lends itself so well; he likes brief, quick, almost percussive interventions which are often rather subtle.

Regular readers will be familiar with the excellent work of Rainey and Kelley, about whom little need be added here; this is a great situation for Kelley, and Rainey does superb things with the mere two tracks he gets here. These are a pair of really exciting practitioners whose sheer understatement, particularly in Rainey’s case, can make them easy to overlook. Here they make wonderful music with Coleman, but you really have to listen to hear it. “Zwittering Maschine” really does sound like the weird, angular, comical little birds in Klee’s painting; Rainey absolutely plays his socks off.

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That’s the theme with the disc as a whole, in fact. Vic Rawlings is perhaps Coleman’s most up-front collaborator (being a member of Jonathon LaMaster’s Saturnalia, he’s used to boistrous music-making), but even he is restrained, seeming to think very carefully about every sound he makes. His cntribution to “Muddy Kemaris” seems to give the very spread-out ribs of this music a backbone to hang off.

Vocalist Liz Tonne has the open-mouthed tone of a classical singer, but here she’s all whispers, mutterings and the tiniest of nocturnal sounds. Nakatani, who has worked with Kelley and Rainey as Nmperign and with Rawlings in Saturnalia, augments his pattering percussion with bowed cymbals, which on the face of things shouldn’t suit this environment; they do because he doesn’t really use them for sustained sound at all.

Coleman has done well to pull such strng musicians together and yet make this potentially fragmentary format work. Instead of sounding like a mix tape, as these things sometimes can, this album feels like the sum of parts which all go together. The fact that these musicians work with and understand one another is obviously a great help. These folks could give anyone in Europe a run for their money when it comes to so-called European improvisation. Beautiful and, above all, understated music which is not afraid to do just what’s necessary. If you don’t yet know these musicians, here is a nice way to discover them. Richard Cochrane