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A mixed bag of avant-garde offerings


Steve Coleman's Natal Eclipse, "Morphogenesis" (Pi); Dave Douglas' Riverside Band, "The New National Anthem" (Greenleaf)

Here are two of the most prominent and praised of veteran musicians in jazz of avant-garde persuasion. The more ambitious, by far, is the new Steve Coleman disc using an octet with a guest percussionist on five tracks rather than conventional "chinga-chinga-chinga" jazz drums. Coleman is a systematizer of a vaguely Schoenbergian sort i.e. a musician whose theories about how music should be composed and played completely dominate the audience's experience of how it should be listened to. (A music magazine once titled a piece written by serial composer Milton Babbitt "Who Cares If You Listen?")

The music on "Morphogenesis" is often phenomenally difficult to play but seldom equally rewarding for listeners, for all that went into it. It is best by far in its solos, and especially in its improvised counterpoint (as heard on the composition "Morphing"). But too much of this is as cold as can be to the human ear. Sometimes, it's like a hungry person eating frozen peas straight out of the package: They're certainly edible and nutritious but you know there are far better ways to present them (including raw and at room temperature). At worst, listening to this is like consuming frozen kale.

It must be admitted that repeated listenings of the disc are rewarded. But it must also be admitted that it's unlikely most people will want their listening repeated. Douglas' piano-less quartet disc uses the name of their first disc as the group name now – Riverside. Three of its selections are by one of the greatest jazz composers, Carla Bley (whose sardonic "New National Anthem" is appropriately sour for the era).

The rest of the compositions are by Douglas himself who has created a counterpoint with his saxophonist and clarinetist Chet Doxa that is absolutely the next step in jazz after Jimmy Giuffre. It's a solid disc with Doxa's brother Jim on drums and the venerable Steve Swallow on electric bass. It's message is (along with the best of Coleman) it's what you do with musical lines that counts most.

2 stars (out of four) for Coleman

3 stars (out of four) for Douglas


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