Jazz Album Review: Anna Webber’s “Idiom” — Free Improvisation as Potpourri
By Michael Ullman
Descriptions of Anna Webber’s music might make it seem intimidating. It is not — her compositions are stirring, amusing, and delightful, particularly in the shell games they play with variety and coherence.
Anna Webber, Idiom (Pi Recordings)
I am listening to it via a download, but saxophonist and flutist Anna Webber’s exhilarating set Idiom will also be released on two discs. The first features the buoyant, wildly interactive trio of Webber, pianist Matt Mitchell, and drummer John Hollenbeck. The second teams the leader up with a dozen instruments — the groups, all conducted by Eric Wubbels, include a horn section and strings as well as bass drums and synthesizer. Track titles are mostly called “Idiom”; they are intended, Webber explains, to display her use of extended techniques, including false fingerings, overtones, notes on the flute that are blown without resonance, and sounds that a mouthpiece might make.
The set opens with “Idiom 1,” a piece with a fast, driven rhythm. It’s an exercise in manic minimalism: the sound seems to come from Webber’s mouthpiece playing in unison with Mitchell’s piano. Mitchell adds single notes as a kind of punctuation while Hollenbeck plays around as he keeps track of the initial phrasings. Then it all stops…and starts again with different pitches. At some point there’s a momentary pause and Webber reenters, first by just flapping her keys in rapid triplets then by supplying more audible tones. The mood is playfully humorous, given the piece’s rhythmic complexity, sudden stops and starts, and oddball interjections. Webber’s focus is on free improvisation as potpourri. “Idiom 3” is different, if only because it has a name, “Forgotten Best.” The composition begins with a couple of short phrases from Webber’s solo tenor that almost immediately inspire a kind of conversation with pianist Mitchell. The dialogue is flexible enough to contain parallel monologues. Eventually, Hollenbeck opens up, playing on rims. Webber responds by broadening her tone, blows some held notes, and the conversation becomes increasingly agitated. There’s variety here, and wit, even a bit of toe-tapping swing, especially in the group improvisations.
“Idiom III” seems similar in conception to the opening number: it’s a series of rapidly repeated staccato notes drawing on one tone, followed by the same obsessive phrasing a step down. Eventually Webber breaks free by adding some capstone phrases. “Idiom VI” is different. After an initial bright note, everything becomes submerged. We hear low rumbling sounds that are repeatedly interrupted by startling loud notes by all three. Eventually the interruptions become more insistent and varied. It seems like a kind of battle of gradually increasing intensity, eventually becoming hysterical when Webber plays a half-articulated note that rises into infinity and then solos excitedly in this high range. The whole band subsequently erupts.
The ensemble pieces with their wider palette contribute welcome new sounds. “Idiom Six. Movement II” begins with Webber soloing on flute over drums and repeated sequences plucked (I believe) on the strings and brass. Two minutes into the movement everything stops; Adam O’Farrill then plays the basic sequence on open horn trumpet. (O’Farrill brings in more lyricism on the next piece.) Suddenly the band sounds like a brass choir and, as everyone joins in, the tune becomes celebratory. What holds this and the other Webber pieces together are their adroit use of repeated sequences. These are not oppressive or restrictive: for example, in this piece we are given a surprising passage of scraping string sounds and darting notes on clarinet — it feels as if a curious bird is piping up. Idiom is nothing if not imaginative. My fear is that descriptions of Webber’s music might make it seem intimidating. It is not — her compositions are stirring, amusing, and delightful, particularly in the shell games they play with variety and coherence. I don’t know anything quite like it.
Michael Ullman studied classical clarinet and was educated at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and the U. of Michigan, from which he received a PhD in English. The author or co-author of two books on jazz, he has written on jazz and classical music for the Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, High Fidelity, Stereophile, Boston Phoenix, Boston Globe, and other venues. His articles on Dickens, Joyce, Kipling, and others have appeared in academic journals. For over 20 years, he has written a bi-monthly jazz column for Fanfare Magazine, for which he also reviews classical music. At Tufts University, he teaches mostly modernist writers in the English Department and jazz and blues history in the Music Department. He plays piano badly.