Something essential is being telegraphed in the opening seconds of Black Bend. Sharp glissandos, brittle pizzicato plucks and false starts that catch out some gentle extended-technique scrapings – so much of this sounds like textbook modernism. And yet the pitches are unmistakably bluesy. Time to scramble up the traditions, and to bring that I / IV / V feel into your chamber music being played by members of the Berlin Philharmonic. (Don’t laugh; the Germans can play the blues just fine, as you’ll find when Black Bend lurches forward into the groove that it always needed to become.)
From the description, we’d seem to be in Martin Bresnick territory: a learned, slightly-academically-futzed-with appreciation of the American folk-forms. Except Dan Visconti’s compositional approach to various moods is a little less chopped and screwed. He does a little less gesturing at the reference points (a subtlety only possible in the aftermath of Bresnick’s – and Bang on a Can’s – advocacy of such language mashups). And so the brief follow-up, Lawless Airs – for violin and harp – can move from koan-like whisper to neoromantic flourish and then into an almost spectral, icy finale without needing to make a huge deal out of it.
You might be tempted to say that "Lonesome Roads" is an album that does a lot with a little – but it’s actually fairly maximalist in spirit, even down to the sequencing of its miniatures. No piece outstays its welcome. And still, the next one can be relied upon to offer something different: as happens again once the opening bassoon-grumbles on Ramble and Groove, so seemingly indebted to the minimalists (and probably Anthony Braxton, as well), are wedded to its reed-popping, foot stomping climax.
This lightly worn erudition makes "Lonesome Roads" a deeply enjoyable album. After a brief recapitulation of Visctonti’s love of country-infused solo viola writing (Hard-Knock Stomp), the album is ready to go for slightly more ambition, in Drift of Rainbows, a piece for chamber ensemble and delay unit. The introduction of electronic manipulation is – what else! – subtle, but effective in the way it engages with the strain of neoromanticism that is simultaneously coming to the fore of Visconti’s language once again.
Elegaic but not saccharinely so, that work prepares the listener for another hairpin turn. The following, four-movement Fractured Jams – for violin, clarinet, cello and piano –makes good on its titular adjective within the first minute. (Visconti is a truth-in-titling guy.) That first movement, “Eleven” – a Spinal Tap reference – is devoted to some self-consicously “heavy” moments. Next, the composer’s hoedown-fixation reasserts its primacy in the “Jug Band Jamboree,” which cuts off with a snappy chromatic riff on the piano. (As played by Majella Stockhausen (!), it could have easily gone on longer.) “Series Echoes (Feedback)” offers a moment of eerie-calm respite, before “Kaleidescope Rag” brings it all home.
As a multi-movement work, it may not exactly feel like more than the sum of its parts – but all its parts are evocative and winning. The track where all of Visconti’s affections really come together with the maximum amount of power, though, is the chamber symphony piece Low Country Haze. After another spare opening, the majority of the work is given over to a lush, exploratory folk theme that is eclipsed, in the end, by the gamelan-ish haze of tuned wine goblets that are played by hand. In just over seven minutes, it’s perhaps the strongest single calling-card on this young composer’s album of works.
But it’s not all about concision, after all – as you’ll find on the gloriously unhurried, seven-movement work that gives this album its title. Played by the Horszowski Trio (featuring piano, violin and cello), Lonesome Roads gives the oft-separated styles of modernism and folk-form a reason to hang together – as though they’re on something of a cross-country road-trip. In Visconti’s telling, the two get along famously. And it’s easy to want to join up for the ride.
Dan Visconti: Lonesome Roads
Bridge Records | Buy
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