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The Is

Artist: Michael Cooke
Michael Cooke - The Is CD
Label: Black Hat
Regular Price: $11.95
On Sale For: $5.98 
Year: 2004
Format: CD


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When making music, I'm sometimes asked which "style" this group plays in. Do we favor straight-ahead jazz, free jazz, through-composed, West Coast, East Coast, uptown, downtown? The truth is, I don't really know. In trying to answer the question, I might list some techniques I'm interested in — sound mass, circle music, the use of non-Western scales — but aside from the parts that most clearly reflect composition and improvisation, the music here hopes to stand outside (and then sometimes inside) traditional boundaries. Ornette Coleman answered the question best: "This is our music."

The musicians in the trio make the style of our music. Classically trained cellist and composer Alex Kelly has an eclectic background that involves both free-improvisation and circus music. Drummer Andrew Wilshusen comes from the domain of "jazz," but is always exploring new paths and beats in music. It is my great pleasure to make music with both of them, and I hope you enjoy the results.

One Final Note Review   Instrumental diversity or programmatic variance can be a direction that makes or breaks a record. On occasion, ambition overshadows the musical outcome, so much so that the urge detracts from its overall success. On the other hand, a varied journey can keep the customer satisfied on many levels. The San Francisco-based CKW Trio is an ambitious bunch who mix a variety of influences, both musical and cultural, and choose an unusual instrumental mix to make music that is very much in their own image. Consisting of reedist Michael Cooke, cellist Alex Kelly, and drummer Andrew Wilshusen, the trio engages in a collective effort that navigates compositions from each of their respective pens.

One of the key elements of this record’s success is the presence of insightful notes that bring the listener into the process by articulating influences or aims for each piece. While obviously not a novel idea for jazz or improvised music, these thoughts work particularly well and elucidate this well thought-out music. For instance, the record's opener, “Mondrian En Amérique”, is inspired by Dutch painter Piet Mondrian and is an attempt to reflect his “use of pure line, space, and color juxtaposition”. With this in mind, Cooke’s scorching tenor tone cuts thick to match Kelly’s frenetic cello and Wilshusen’s bustling drums for the record’s most engaging moments.

Following this lead, “Augmented” commences with chamberesque hues before shifting into a jaunty swing groove that pushes Cooke’s soprano work. As a point of reference, the group thanks Ken Vandermark, and utilizing that inspiration, Kelly’s “Alex In Wonderland” has a sense of groove that might remind some of Vandermark’s Spaceways Inc. group. They are also a free-spirited bunch and “21st Century Blues” reflects this mentality, an interactive piece driven by Cooke’s alto sax and the theory of circle music, a concept where “phrases can be played at any time and in any order”.

Non-Western sources also play a significant role. For instance, “Iram”, influenced by the buried city, features a bustling, lopsided groove that fosters Kelly’s dashing lines and Cooke’s robust bass clarinet. Further, “[Three Headed Yogi Seal]”, a free improvisation, is centered on Kelly’s bouzouki and Wilshusen’s tablas, inciting Cooke’s leaping flute sketches. Finally, “Da Yun He” reflects an Asian sensibility, with Kelly’s wiry cello lines contrasting with Cooke’s bass clarinet introspection. The trio also has a flair for carefree humor, best demonstrated by their musings on a Russian circus, “R’izhii”, or the album’s closer, the festive “Marchin’ Home”. Overall, a fitting conclusion to a wide-ranging disc that keeps the listener guessing as to what might be on the horizon.

Micheal Cooke (flute, soprano, alto & tnor sax, soprano and bass clarinet, bassoon, percussion); Alex Kelly (cello, bouzouki); Andrew Wilshusen (percussion)
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