Goodhew/Jensen/Knapp: First Avenue (ECM 1194)

 

First Avenue

Denney Goodhew alto saxophone, flute, bass clarinet
Eric Jensen cello
James Knapp trumpet, fluegelhorn, waterphone
Recorded November 1980 at Tonstudio Bauer, Ludwigsburg
Engineer: Martin Wieland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“Our procedure is to simply begin.”
–James Knapp

Bringing together reedman Denney Goodhew, cellist Eric Jensen, and horn player James Knapp, First Avenue is a ghostly outlier in the ECM backlist. The project germinated within the American Contemporary Dance Company, which paired spontaneous incidental music with indeterminate movement on stage. As the trio began to branch out and perform as a group, they soon made their way into the studio for this enigmatic session. The pieces have no titles outside of “Band One,” “Band Two,” etc., and perhaps anything more would only be a distraction.

The haunting cries of a waterphone make their first of two appearances on the label (the other courtesy of Marilyn Mazur on Elixir) by way of introduction. From this, we encounter a spacious flowering of alto sax, cello, and horn, sounding much like a Gavin Bryars ensemble piece in its developmental arc. Some tracks (Bands Two and Seven) employ an echo effect which, though dated, is put to utmost creative use here, swirling into a spiral in which the original utterance ceases to exist. Band Three boasts as many overdubbed cellos in a clustered, reactive agitation, while Five is a beautiful piece for two overdubbed saxophones. The latter’s chromatic and lively syncopation make for a most engaging interlude to the overall denser flow. Band Four is more playful, yet somehow regretful, feeling like the soundtrack to a mental breakdown, Darren Aronofsky-style—each hiccup from the cello another pill popped, each horn blast another memory compromised.

Loops and delays abound in the album’s second half. Band Six paints a particularly fluid image of fluted beginnings and muted menageries. Bass clarinet and fluegelhorn bleed darker hues into a cello’s growls and other subterranean minutiae. Each ascendant line drapes its shadow from a barely visible line in a modest exhibition of pellucid musicianship and seamless changes of register. The echoed sax in Band Eight almost sounds as if it were being played backward as undulating cello lines keep it airborne. Abandon builds to stratospheric heights before fading in a final dissolve.

These are supremely harmonic, spacious improvisations that ply the ear with questions that are their own answers. This is intimate, far-reaching, and supremely accessible music drawn from a synergistic wellspring of talent. A more than pleasant surprise as yet unburned in CD form.

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