The Safety Net: Aram Shelton – “Flockterkit”


Aram Shelton - "Flockterkit"By seeking to inhabit a space between the spontaneity of improvisation and the patience of harmonic expression, saxophonist Aram Shelton wanted not only to voice this sound, but also to give it a name…  Flockterkit, which Shelton defines as “a joyful and melodic music that starts with a focus on slowly changing chords with attention on harmony and orchestration.”

On the album to which he gives this name, he is admirably successful.

Flockterkit has ample portions of chamber music tucked in snug with music not unlike the electro-ambient blizzards of fellow Chicago-to-Oakland musicians Colorlist, and to a lesser extent, the Finnish outfit Oddarrang.

But where Shelton veers away from the pack rests in his background with the Chicago jazz scene, most notably his collaborations with artists who entrench themselves in the free improv scene.  Previous Shelton albums like Fast Citizens: Two Cities, Arrive, and Something For Everybody display Shelton’s comfort with music possessing sharp angles, hard edges, and a sudden left hook, collaborating with musicians like Tim Daisy, Frank Rosaly, Fred Lonberg-Holm, and Keefe Jackson, and Jason Adasiewicz.

But Flockterkit is more than an avant-garde musician suddenly deciding to make something pretty.  Shelton pieces together an ensemble that is more likely to sound like Something Different.

Your album personnel:  Aram Shelton (alto sax), Andy Strain (trombone), Caroline Penwarden (pump organ, harmonium), Kurt Kotheimer (bass), Anantha Krishnan (tablas, percussion), and Jordan Glenn (drums).

The intriguing mix of instruments alone doesn’t distinguish this recording, but the ensemble’s willingness to mix it up just as often as to stand back and beam an austere beauty, on the other hand, does set this album out from the crowd.  The multiple ways in which the ensemble expresses a state of serenity, bolstered by their alternating speeds and trajectories of fervent motion… it produces music that is simultaneously comforting and unpredictable.  That kind of incongruity makes for an enjoyable experience.

The albums opens with the slow exhalations of harmony on “We Begin.”  The harmonies continues on following track “Forward Flock,” but this breaks into a martial cadence.  Shelton and Strain call and respond with punchy statements on alto sax and trombone, while Penwarden lays down a drone in the background, bridging the gap with sudden modulations to mirror the wind instruments’ demeanor… providing both contrast and comparison with each shift.  The song ends with a gradual fade back to a greater state of calm.

“A Thought to the Past” begins with an ambient sigh, but then develops into murmurs within a bed of silence.  Trombone and sax don’t sound to be conversing, but talking separately in the same room on the same subject.  Rich harmonies envelop the song, unbroken by the rattle of percussion and drums.  Murmurs become a hum that grows into lullaby sweetness, drifting away, filling every bit of silence with harmonic warmth.

“Reconstructed” begins with the first real bout of dissonance.  Glenn is a hyperactive chatterbox on drums.  Trombone and alto sax open with a caustic statement or two, then coalesce into a united declaration of harmony.  It then develops into a juggling act of competing lines, notes tossed about in a cycle of melodic violence.  The end comes with a return to unity, still in a state of rhythmic upheaval, but all working the same harmonic fields.

“Passing Darkly” is an extended drone, illuminated by fuzzy harmonic sighs and yawns, and melodic refraction, as if channeled through warped glass… taking odd shapes, enhancing an odd beauty, yet presented with the mesmerizing simplicity of a ray of sunlight.

“Lock Step / The Only One” is a song cut in two.  Separated by a nifty Kotheimer bass solo, the piece begins with an upbeat tone, and ends with a solemn drone.  The first half has lush harmonic washes atop rhythms that urgently circle the perimeter.  Glenn and Krishnan maintain a nifty chatter on drums and tablas, benefited by Kotheimer’s prodding cadence on bass.  Later, Shelton and Strain develop a melody that cuts clean through Penwarden’s pump organ.  The latter half of the tune sees the melody slowly unraveling, becoming increasingly indistinct, as the harmonic aspect of the song returns to its ascendancy.

The album ends with “Finished.”  A bit of an alternate view of album-opener “We Begin,” with the ambient sigh exchanged for a boisterous attitude, blaring out notes atop turbulent rhythms… a shout to the sky energy.

Just a real intriguing album, one that does something a little different, and yet is supremely listenable.  At times, it forces me to engage with it, while other times, I can just sit back and drift off into daydreams.  I like that.

Released in 2008 on Single Speed Music.

Jazz from the Oakland, California scene.

Available at:  Bandcamp Digital | Buy the CD direct from the artist


The Safety Net, a Bird is the Worm series that highlights outstanding older albums that may have flown under the radar when first released.