A Bit of the Crust

Strata (NEITHER/NOR RECORDS n/n 004) is a very good piece of composed-conducted-improvised music played by an Ensemble of 13 musicians in Brooklyn, New York. Percussionist Carlo Costa is the leader and composer here (and owner of the fine label Neither / Nor Records) the ensemble is called Carlo Costa’s Acustica.

The history of jazz music ensembles, from Duke Ellington to Sun Ra, reveals a pattern whereby the efforts of several talented musicians can play together without getting in each other’s way; both Duke and Ra (and many others) found ways to do this, through arrangements or “charts”, or in Ra’s case perhaps through sheer charisma. Carlo Costa takes that process and slows it right down on Strata, allowing the listener to “see” the arrangements in a composition that’s so transparent that at times it’s more like reading a graph than hearing music. Even the title is calling attention to the layering process. “Layers of sound in different combinations,” is how Costa describes the work, and points out the “spare single layers” as opposed to the “densely stacked multiple layers”. Even without this information, the sheer acoustical separation that’s going on in this performance is highly marked, to say the least.

It’s much to the credit of the very able musicians here that they’re able to realise the work, which I suppose must have taken a fair amount of effort; the restraint they exhibit is audible in just about every moment, forcing themselves to keep it simple, slow, and distinctive, each note etched in sharp relief. The acoustic combinations that arise within these “stratified layers” are often astonishing; even the best orchestrator might be hard pushed to come up with combinations that are as strong. Piano notes, guitar strums, percussive beats, groans from the woodwinds and brass; every note resounds like a pistol shot, everything is key-lit to produce stark and contrasty shadows, and the entire session is fraught with an agonised tension. Costa refers to an “aural space” that’s being built up this way; there are repeated sections, and when they recur they are placed in “different contexts” and in a different location in the whole strata. In doing this, he wants to force a shift of perspective, no less.

The downside, if indeed it is one, is that in this context Acustica are not allowed to cut loose, let rip, or blast their hearts out in the same way that John Gilmore or Marshall Allen might be allowed a rip-roaring solo in any given Sun Ra set. But this is deliberate, it’s a discipline, and the music is a powerful, astringent antidote to so-called “energy” free jazz. If you’re fed up with those heavy-handed Norwegians like Brute Force charging their way into your life with their ugly and blurty take on free jazz, this restrained yet rewarding approach to music will come as a welcome relief. We might also mention at this point the superficial resemblance to the compositions of Morton Feldman (slowness, spaces and gaps, patterns, acoustic instruments), though I suspect it’s just a coincidence. The players include the wonderful Dan Peck on tuba. Be sure to investigate other releases on this label, the quality is very consistent. From 9th March 2016.

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