Saxophonist/Clarinetist/Composer Ken Thomson has been an active member of the New York freelance scene for nearly two decades, as a performing member of the Bang on a Can All Stars and Asphalt Orchestra, among several others. Also an accomplished bandleader, Thomson releases his newest Sextet recording featuring ambitious, rhythmically incisive music (including an arrangement of Ligeti’s Passacaglia Ungherese) that flows seamlessly between elaborate contrapuntal textures, edge of your set unison passages, and blistering improvisations from a first rate band of colleagues.
|02||Misery Is The New Hope|
Misery Is The New Hope
|07||Phantom Vibration Syndrome|
Phantom Vibration Syndrome
Ken Thomson’s passion for the past decade is to fuse the intensity, complexity, and thematic cohesiveness of modern composition -- music that he would write (and has written) for orchestra or string quartet -- with the spontaneity and openness of jazz, and in so doing, to push the sound of jazz forward. He creates music where neither the composition nor the improvisation can live without each other.
This record and ensemble is the culmination of an ongoing series of recordings Thomson has made to unify these traditions. After two releases with his cross-genre ensemble Slow/Fast, the Bang on a Can All-Star reedist has expanded his ensemble to include alto and tenor saxophones, trumpet and trombone (a classic combination in jazz), and dropped the chordal instrument, leaving bass and drums. With four horns, the palette is bigger and broader, and the composition is the most ambitious it ever has been. The music is rooted to tradition and yet sounds fresh.
The concept of the album is a homage to Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Music” LP, where Monk focuses on his originals but begins with a chorale from the church, “Abide with Me.” Thomson has updated this concept to the 21st Century, both in terms of his own composition and its influences but also creating a direct parallel -- using a Gyorgy Ligeti harpsichord passacaglia from 1978 as the opening statement, which he arranged for four wind instruments, as a prelude. Thereafter, the music pushes forward, with each composition making its own statement and its own stamp; these are long-form pieces and the 52-minute disc also has 6 original works on it.
Ken Thomson, a staple of New York City's contemporary music and jazz communities, is widely regarded for his ability to blend a rich variety of influences and styles into his own musical language while maintaining a voice unmistakably his own. Embracing the combination of complexity in harmony, rhythm, and form while adding a punk-rock aesthetic, Thomson stands alone in his unique corner of today's multifaceted musical world.
As a performer-composer bridging jazz and contemporary music, his latest release with his group Slow/Fast was called "Settle." It was praised by The New York Times for its "intricate long-form compositions," and garnered a five-star review in All About Jazz. The Chicago Reader wrote, "Few musicians travel as assuredly and meaningfully between jazz and new music.... Thomson's pieces breathe and emanate an infectious energy, with every wend and wind hurtling the music forward rather than showing off the band's chops." He has released a CD of his compositions for the heralded JACK Quartet, "Thaw," on Cantaloupe Music, which was called the #1 Classical CD of 2013 by Rhapsody.com, and was featured in NPR's "10 Songs Public Radio Can't Stop Playing." His most recent disc, Restless, released October 2016, focuses on two major works for cello and piano performed by Ashley Bathgate and Karl Larson, released digitally and on vinyl. It garnered a 7.9 Pitchfork review and received Top of 2016 accolades from writers Seth Colter Walls, Steve Smith (The Log Journal) and AnEarful blog, who wrote, "No album in 2016 in any genre did more with less than Restless, featuring two huge-sounding chamber works composed by Thomson.
He plays clarinet for the Bang on a Can All-Stars, one of the world's preeminent new music ensembles. He is the musical director for the Asphalt Orchestra - a 12-piece next-generation avant-garde marching band, called "cooly brilliant, infectious... top notch players" by The New York Times. He plays saxophone and is one of the 4 composers in the punk/jazz band Gutbucket, with whom he has toured internationally to twenty countries and 32 states over seventeen years, and released six CDs and a DVD for Knitting Factory, Enja, NRW, Cantaloupe and Cuneiform Records. He is on faculty at the Bang on a Can Summer Music Festival.
As a composer, he has been commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra, Bang on a Can, the True/False Film Festival, Doug Perkins, Mariel Roberts, and others, and has received awards from New Music USA, ASCAP and Meet the Composer. His latest 15-minute work for chamber orchestra, "Boil," was premiered at the Bang on a Can Summer Festival in summer 2016.
As a saxophonist and clarinetist, he has performed and recorded with Ensemble Signal, Alarm Will Sound, International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) and more. He has performed extensively across the US and Europe at major jazz festivals including Jazz a Vienne, San Sebastian Jazz Festival, Warsaw Summer Jazz Days and the Saalfelden, London, Copenhagen, Rotterdam and Belgrade Jazz Festivals. He has recently been the subject of profile features in Downbeat and NewMusicBox. He is a Selmer Paris and Conn-Selmer Artist, a D'Addario Reeds artist.
This very odd album came my way in even stranger packaging: an oversized (7 1/8” X 7 1/8”) cardboard sleeve, in which was contained, in a little cardboard pocket, the CD. And despite the rather large size of the fold-over container, there were absolutely no liner notes. I looked inside the open portion of the sleeve and only found a little business card which thanked me for buying the CD and offering me a free digital download of this very same album. As Alice said in Wonderland, “Curiouser and curiouser!” On the artist’s website, it says this recording is scheduled for release on September 7.
Whatever the rationale behind the oversized booklet and its lack of information, his website bio describes him as “a staple of New York City’s contemporary music and jazz communities,” which probably explains such depressing titles on this disc as Misery is the New Hope and Helpless (funny, those of us here in the Midwest don’t feel helpless or miserable at all, in fact we’re pretty happy folk). But I was surprised to discover that he is part of the Bang on a Can group, because their music, to my ears, is noisy and obnoxious while Thomson’s is utterly brilliant and attractive. In fact, I would deem this one of the jazz finds of the year, on the high level of the Alchemy Sound Project and Jungsu Choi’s Tiny Orkester. As one might expect, Thomson’s arrangement of György Ligeti’s Passacaglia Ungherese walks a tightrope between jazz and classical feeling, but what really impressed me was his highly imaginative scoring. Thomson doesn’t just use his sextet in the conventional jazz manner, but rather has them play in counterpoint against each other like a classical sextet, only with jazz swing and feeling, and this aesthetic carries over into the original compositions. Even more impressively, all of Thomson’s players are extraordinarily inventive improvisers, taking risks while actually creating little compositions within their solos that relate to the surrounding material, and even when he has them play canons or rounds, there is constant invention going on. In Icebreaker, Thomson adds backbeat handclapping against the constantly-moving melodic line played by the two saxes, with rhythmic punctuation by the two brass instruments. Like the late Rod Levitt or Charles Mingus, Thomson has discovered the secret of making a sextet almost sound like a full orchestra. Alan Ferber’s staccato trombone solo sounded to me like a modern equivalent of Miff Mole’s brilliant playing in the late 1920s, with its interesting intervallic leaps and harmonic daring, and no matter where you are in any given track of this outstanding album, your attention never flags. For me, that’s the surest mark of a great recording.
In my online book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond , I ended my fairly exhaustive survey of the intersection between classical music and jazz by saying that, for me, the best future of art music in the new millennium would be a continual mixture of both because they need each other in order to keep invention alive without resorting to modern clichés to replace the old clichés in either genre. I receive many jazz and classical albums for consideration to review, but pass on a great many of the former because they seem to be more interested in recycling older jazz ideas from the 1950s through the early ‘70s without adding a single new idea to the mix. Here, even in a jazz ballad like Resolve, which is somewhat more conventional than the first three tracks, Thomson manages to morph the music as it goes along, adding contrasting themes in different rhythms and again using counterpoint to enliven the ensemble. At about the midway point, the tempo doubles, Thomson plays a busy figure on the alto, Webber plays an opposing theme on tenor, and then the brass joins them for a happy little fugue (more precisely, a fugue played by the two reeds while the two brass play slower figures underneath them) before moving into the improvised sections. Thomson’s group lives on the edge of “free jazz” but never immerses itself in it because their musical ideas are too tightly constructed and the direction of the music more concerned with development and structure than musical anarchy. Even when the rest of the band falls away and all you hear is Thomson on alto with Adam Armstrong’s bass propelling him (with occasional little comments from Daniel Dor on drums), the music continually develops in forward-moving patterns. As I said, this is almost on the high level of Levitt or Mingus.
Helpless begins with a dolorous solo trumpet, the two saxes interweaving fluttery little figures around it (the trumpet tune almost sounds like something Aaron Copland would have written), which goes on for some time. Eventually, the saxes play a little riff in thirds with bass and drum accents while the trumpet interjects in the spaces between their notes. The bass becomes slowly and subtly more active as underpinning, nudging the music gently forward with a jazz pulse, while the trumpet takes over the lead, crafting an improvised solo while the saxes’ interjections become more minimal. Then the swirling, fluttery sax figures return, and bassist Armstrong plays a bowed (arco) solo beneath them and the trumpet tune also returns. This is extraordinary cyclical writing.
Turn Around returns to a sort of stiff-rhythmed melodic line, again with little fugal interludes, before the rhythm section begins to propel them forward as if encouraging them to move on to something else. Armstrong then plays a fine plucked solo, in the second chorus of which the horns and reeds interject new little figures behind him before slowing the tempo down and playing another counterpoint passage. Ferber gets another solo, a bit more in the Jimmy Knepper vein here, while the drums play happy little figures behind him as if glad that the music is finally jumping. After this passage comes to a stop, Thomson begins another little canon, this time with all of the other lead instruments playing an opposing figure in unison behind him.
The finale, Phantom Vibration Syndrome, opens with a little fugal riff by the two brass which is then played above longer-held notes by the tenor sax before the two reeds get into the picture and the opposing figures again morph and change. Then, just as suddenly, we’re in jazz time with Thomson playing a brilliant solo against the bass with occasional cymbal interjections. After a pause, we hear a secondary theme, almost a dirge, played by the four horns sans rhythm section. Thomson plays a busier figure above it, then we move into a series of asymmetric staccato chords by all four horns. Thomson’s little figure then moves us into another counterpoint passage. The little alto figure then becomes a sort of moto perpetuo with the rhythm supporting and, eventually, the others joining him in counter-figures. This is really brilliant composing/arranging.
What a great album this is! Maybe I’ll even give Bang on a Can another listen.
-Lynn René Bayley, 8.27.2018, The Art Music Lounge
Ken Thomson’s music dances at the crossroads of contemporary classical and jazz—filled with boundless verve, blistering improvisations, and contrapuntal complexity. When he’s performing, his energy shines onstage—and when he’s writing music, it leaps off the page.
Though the clarinetist and saxophonist is perhaps best known as one of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, Thomson’s new album of original compositions, titled Sextet, features him performing alongside a hand-picked cast of jazz all-stars: saxophonist Anna Webber, trumpeter Russ Johnson, trombonist Alan Ferber, bassist Adam Armstrong, and drummer Daniel Dor.
The album begins with Thomson’s own arrangement of György Ligeti’s melancholic Passacaglia Ungherese before spiraling through a collection of six original groove-driven compositions that float freely between the rigor of through-composed music and the spontaneity of improvised solos.
-Maggie Molloy, 9.5.2018, Second Inversion
Ken Thomson is a well-known musician and composer from Bang on a Can All-Stars and Gutbucket, as well as the musical director for Asphalt Orchestra. In addition to those roles, he has been commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra and received awards for his compositions from New Music USA, ASCAP and Meet the Composer. As a composer and performer, Thomson’s music is heavily set in connecting the genres of contemporary music and jazz. He achieves this goal by pairing the complexities of these two types of music through the use of form, harmony and rhythmic intricacies. Thomson’s latest album, “Sextet” is a brilliant example of how these two seemingly different genres can play nice together.
A great contribution to the success of Thomson’s composition “Sextet” is his use of musicians well-versed in the mediums of both composing and improvising. The members of the ensemble on this album include the composer, Ken Thomson, alto saxophone; Anna Weber, tenor saxophone; Russ Johnson, trumpet; Alan Ferber, trombone; Adam Armstrong, bass; and Daniel Dor, drums. Each of these musicians adds their own special layer to the overall success of the album through their deep understanding of improvisation and composition. The music composed by Thomson is exceptional in the fact that its difficulty does not hinder the high level of musicianship as displayed throughout the album. The musicians on this album effectively bring the music to life with their performance.
The first movement, Passacaglia Ungherese is a five-minute cyclical rendition based on a 1978 harpsichord passacaglia, however the parts are split between four horns. This opening track sets the album apart from others with a composition that immediately sets the listener up to question why a jazz album would begin with something that is closer to a classical medium rather than the jazz genre. The choice to use a prelude with intricate counterpoint was an excellent way to introduce this album and to get the listener thinking, “what is this about, and how will it affect the entirety of the album?” Thelonious Monk used a similar approach where he opened an album using a chorale. The opening track on an album creates an expectation and Thomson’s approach is well-executed by creating a sound world that sets itself apart from others.
A prime example of the way that Thomson incorporates these two styles into one happens on the fifth track on the album, Helpless. This track bridges the gap between jazz and contemporary music through creating an underlying idea that sounds minimalistic in nature while simultaneously allowing an improvisatory solo to take place above the rest of the ensemble. The focus of the first two minutes of this track can be separated into two groups, the first being the improvisatory trumpet melody, and the second group being the hemiola created within the ensemble. The foundation of the hemiola is used within a small range of pitches and mainly focuses on putting duple and triple rhythms together to create a blurred sound world that does not take away from the melodic idea shaped by the trumpet.
A central theme throughout “Sextet” is the use of repetition. The way in which Thomson uses repetition reminds one of the characteristic style of minimalist composer Philip Glass, and something that is clearly heard on every track in this album. Repetition is a common occurrence in pitch material, timbre, and dynamic variation; however, the most prominent repetition can be heard within the rhythm. The rhythmic material used in each track creates a groove that even the most complex compositional ideas can fall into. The second track Misery Is Our New Hope uses both melodic and rhythmic repetition as a means to create energy and excitement as the album progresses. The first minute of this track is consumed in repetitive melodic idea that is seamlessly passed between different voice pairings before leading directly into a lengthy saxophone solo. As the saxophone solo is winding down the music comes back to the initial theme of the track before leading into a trumpet solo. Succeeding the trumpet solo is a return of the driving melody that adds new voices and additional layers to the original theme to create a great deal of tension before falling into line with all of the voices and ending together.
The final track, Phantom Vibration Syndrome has components of each compositional technique used throughout the album compiled into one. This includes the heavy use of melodic and rhythmic repetition, seventh chords paired with many moments of tasteful dissonance and extended solos throughout this nine minute track to encapsulate the compositional style used through the entirety of the album. The construction of the counterpoint allows for the moments of dissonance to flourish in a logical sequence as it allows the listener to focus on the melodic lines separately and understand the moments of dissonance as the lines lead into each other.
“Sextet” is a superb demonstration of fusing the worlds of jazz and contemporary music together as one. With its unique beginning and contrasting styles, Ken Thomson has proven that he can meld these genres together to create something truly unique. The demanding and technical abilities required throughout the album are handled effortlessly by the ensemble, providing an engaging experience throughout. Whether you are a jazz musician or a contemporary enthusiast, Thomson’s “Sextet” shows that these two genres not only play nice together, but sound great together.
-Megan Parsell, 9.17.2018, Sybaritic Singer
Saxophonist Ken Thomson’s new CD—its title signalinga new band as well—is almost too heady for its own good.
Almost. The album is in concept an homage to Thelonious Monk’s 1957 record Monk’s Music, borrowing the little red wagon for the cover and the notion of a devotional introduction for the track listing. The fact that the opener isn’t a hymn (as in Monk’s case with Abide With Me) but György Ligeti’s 1978 Passacaglia Ungherese for harpsichord gives a hint as to where he’s coming from. The saxophonist is a member
of the Bang on a Can All-Stars so eclecticism is to be expected. But that said, either the concept is too complex to comprehend or, more simply, ends there.
But in truth it doesn’t matter much either way. Concepts needn’t be complicated or even comprehensible; they just need to enhance the finished product and then get out of the way. Monk and Ligeti are both wonderful melodicists but in the end any connection between the
two seems to have little to do with what this record is about. Fortunately, the record is immensely enjoyable, so concerns about conceit can be left in the ashcan.
The Ligeti piece is a quick five minutes—arranged for Thomson’s ensemble of four horns (his alto and Anna Webber on tenor with trumpeter Russ Johnson and trombonist Alan Ferber), bassist Adam Armstrong and drummer Daniel Dor. It serves as a perfect prelude to Thomson’s invigorating Misery is the New Hope. A slightly longer Icebreaker is as tightly constructed as the first two tracks, before the band gets to stretch and solo through the 10-minute Resolve.
A thrilling half-hour in and things turn somber with Helpless, a setting without rhythm section that suggests a horn esprit de corps within the vulnerability. Turn Around takes a more soulful turn, with space given for the bass to sing. The curiously titled closer Phantom Vibration Syndrome is an exercise in syncopation uniting the cerebral first track with Thomson’s more emotive motifs.
With "Sextet", Thomson manages to be serious without being overly stern and fun without being simplistic.
-Kurt Gottschalk, 10.2018, The New York City Jazz Record
"Sextet" arrives in an oversized gatefold sleeve, one halfway between LP and CD formats. If such a gesture is intended to accentuate Ken Thomson's status as an artist different from others, it's hardly necessary: constitutionally, as a composer and conceptualist Thomson has stood apart for a while now, something "Sextet" soundly reaffirms.
The album's nominally jazz, but the term hardly does justice to what Thomson's up to here. His intricate charts are so rich in counterpoint and polyphony, they as much suggest a classical sensibility as jazz, and as if designed to emphasize the fact, the seven-track set begins with a treatment of Gyorgy Ligeti's Passacaglia Ungherese, the band in this case downplaying soloing for a close reading of the material. The move's significant: in selecting Ligeti's piece as a scene-setter, Thomson serves notice that the originals following will infuse the group's jazz-styled attack with the complexity and sophistication of contemporary classical writing. As a result, formal notation and improvisation become equally important facets of the music in contrast to both classical, where adherence to notated charts is emphasized, and jazz, where improvisation is foundational.
Such genre cross-pollination is nothing new for Thomson, by the way. As the clarinetist in the Bang on a Can All-Stars (Slow/Fast and Gutbucket, too), he regularly tackles contemporary classical works, and Thomson himself has written material for the JACK Quartet, American Composers Orchestra, and others. This is a man for whom operating at high altitudes where bold classical and jazz forms intermingle is nothing unusual.
He's certainly gathered an incredible set of musicians for the project, whose fifty-five minutes were laid down over two days at NYC's Flux Studios in January 2017. Thomson's complex charts demand high-velocity playing, and on "Sextet", the leader augments his alto with tenor saxist Anna Webber, trumpeter Russ Johnson, and trombonist Alan Ferber, all four of them powered by the ever flexible Adam Armstrong on bass and Daniel Dor on drums (notable for its absence is piano). That four-horn front-line gives the Brooklyn-based Thomson much to work with in terms of contrapuntal lines and layering.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the sextet's rendering of Passacaglia Ungherese (aside from how well-attuned the players are to the the arrangement's intricacies) is how little seeming distance separates Ligeti's from the six by Thomson. Deprived of the knowledge that the chorale-styled opener isn't a Thomson original, one would presume it to be so, given how naturally it aligns with those that follow, especially when the plenitude of counterpoint, layering, and polyphony in that opener carries over into the other content (see the luscious, horns-only intro to the ten-minute Resolve in particular). Armstrong and Dor don't appear in the Ligeti setting, however, and as a result the tone of the release changes when their agile rhythmning joins the rest in Misery is the New Hope; another key shift occurs, too, in the addition of soloing to the presentation, even if it's judiciously incorporated when the composition dedicates so much time to formal notation. That said, Thomson and Johnson thread robust solos into the framework, their turns emboldened by the considerable heat generated around them.
One's ears perk up when Icebreaker opens with rapid-fire unison lines by Thomson and Webber, their roller-coaster trajectories first egged on by claps and then the full band. In the solo department, Ferber soars this time out, though you'll probably more remember the incredible energy of the coda when the tune's over. The lines between classical and jazz also blur during Helpless when solos by Johnson are backed by a fluttering series of cyclical, minimalism-styled patterns voiced by the other horns.
Though the release is supposedly a homage of sorts to Thelonious Monk's "Monk's Music", you won't likely come away from "Sextet" overly conscious of connections between them; instead, the primary takeaways will likely focus on Thomson specifically, as both player and composer, and the band that so fabulously executes his material. If there is a connection to be made to earlier jazz figures, it might be more to Charlie Parker for the way Thomson's compositions wed such an intricate melodic design to an irrepressibly buoyant (never more evident than during Turn Around) and at times bop-inflected swing.
-Ron Schepper, 10.19, textura