Dec 7 2013
The theme of water and its visceral effect on creative intuition comes up frequently on these pages. The number of albums reviewed on this site that were inspired by views of lakes, oceans, and rivers outnumber, perhaps, any other similar type of categorization.
With the theme of a one-day cycle on the water’s edge, pianist Alan Blackman‘s The Coastal Suite reflects both the sublime nature of time spent on the shore as well as its temperamental unpredictability. It is an album of tepid rhythmic dissonance interspersed by the loveliest melodic expressions.
Your album personnel: Alan Blackman (piano, ebow, glockenspiel, pan flute), Rogerio Boccato (percussion), Donny McCaslin (tenor & soprano saxes), Max Murray (bass), and Frank Russo (drums).
The album opens with a few tracks that murmur at a volume just barely above a whisper, the cry of arco and the echoing footsteps of bass, the sursurrance of piano and percussion mesmerizing to the point that it is easy to lose track of time and song, only returning to the sense of ‘now’ when Donny McCaslin’s sax cries out urgently, like seagulls, on the lively “Eddies and Pools.”
Interspersed throughout the album are improvised solos by each of the ensemble members. The given song titles are simply the instruments’ names, but their symbolism is much more nuanced than that. Fifth track “Percussion” mirrors the sound of waves lapping up against buoys and the dock… Baccato’s hush of insistent, soft crashes of water hitting metal and wood, slaps and dings, whispers and chimes, a hypnotic lullaby with no melody, only rhythm.
“The Channel Marker Sounds” are beautiful saxophone yawns and sighs, piano twirling about with a enchanting grace, percussion chiming in like a heartbeat at rest. The song’s brevity is made to seem even more so by weight of its stunning beauty.
Blackman’s piano solo interlude leads into “Driftwood,” a jubilant piece that speaks the same emotional language as that of Keith Jarrett’s American Quartet 1970’s work… a soulfulness that is equal parts spirituality and groove.
Frank Russo’s drum solo, like stormy waves battering the shore, leads into the delicate sound of piano notes, like the first raindrops hitting the water’s surface. The intensity of those notes increases, and when McCaslin joins in on sax, the downpour of music reflects the forewarning of Russo’s drum solo.
“Steps in the Sand” is, by far, the most conventional song in the suite. A simple melody, returned to frequently, and accompanied by an insinuation of a groove. Murray’s nifty bass solo switches things up momentarily, giving a straight-ahead tune a sleight-of-hand wrinkle to differentiate the song without materially changing it.
It transitions right into a McCaslin sax solo. Conversational in tone, it cycles with a tight circumference, occasionally twisting off into a tangential curl before returning to its prevailing orbit.
The suite’s final part, “Fractured Moonlight,” possesses a melody with the fragile weariness of Charles Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” a tribute to the passing of good friend and collaborator Eric Dolphy, and much like any encapsulation of a life or definitive statement of finality, the song encompasses not just that initial mournfulness, but also builds up into a celebratory tone, of recognition of the vast spectrum of human emotion. Blackman, Baccato, and Russo develop excitable chatter on the rhythmic side of things, and McCaslin rides that crest with some talkative demeanor of his own on sax, while Murray alternates between wave and surfer on bass, adding a little to each, adding a lot to the whole.
Also instrumental to the music of The Coastal Suite are the paintings of Ruth Brownlee. In performance, Blackman displays images of Brownlee paintings across the backdrop of the stage, marrying the imagery of the music to that of Brownlee’s art. In correspondence with Blackman, he stated that he wanted to “help mark a new standard for live jazz performances, including a visual element.” And, Blackman adds that “the band members have loved seeing the projected images as we perform. It helps so much with the mood and can even influence how you are playing your solo pieces.”
For Blackman, what drew him to Brownlee’s work is that “she lives on a remote island, and for the most part, exclusively paints coastal scenes.” That inspiration appears to have been a good one to embrace, because between the music’s effect on the performances and the connection of drawing breath from the beauty of the water’s shore, Blackman adds, “I now associate some of [Brownlee’s] paintings with specific compositions from the suite.”
An absolutely gorgeous album, which communicates its waterside vision with stunning resonance.
The album is Self-Produced.
Jazz from the Baltimore scene.
Listen to a live performance of the Coast Suite on NPR’s JazzSet.
Beautiful album artwork by Ruth Brownlee.