Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The Altered State of Myriam

Don't let the top credit on Myriam Alter's new "Where Is There" confuse you, although Myriam Alter is a piano player (and apparently a "fine" one, accorded to a few critics; I have never heard her other records), she does not play anything on the album. Instead, she composes the eight original tunes. The arrangement- the person with the lead credit composes and conducts, but does not play- is reminiscent of John Zorn's Bar Kokhba Sextet, which is fitting; bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron, both long-time Zorn associates, are featured on this record. Salvatore Bonafede plays piano on this date, and as such is somewhat liker her alter (get it?)-ego.

All in all, the playing is pretty good. The last few tracks are more interesting in that they have more room for some free improvisation from the group, which also includes clarinetist John Ruocco, cellist Jacque Morelenbaum and pyrotechnical soprano saxophonist Pierre Vaiana, whose playing here recalls that of Daniel Zamir. Vaiana has very few showcases on the album (with such a big cast of players, individual solos are relatively sparse), but when he does solo, as on "I'm Telling You," he commands attention like no one else playing on the album.

But, of course, that's not the point; it is Myriam Alter's album, and it feels that way. Alter's compositions, and not the player's solos, are the backbone of the record. Like Zamir and Zorn, Alter is influenced by traditional Jewish music, but the more fitting comparison- and the one I've heard most from other critics- is to young clarinetist Anat Cohen. Like Cohen, Alter is more interested in created complex colours with her band's oddly voiced instrumentation as opposed to writing heads for the various musicians to solo over. This doesn't always work, of course- "September 11th" (can you guess what that one's supposed to evoke?) is a somewhat sludge-y dirge, and "Come With Me" drags on a bit too long. For the most part though, the compositions are interesting, and even occasionally beautiful, as in the tango sounding "Still in Love." Recommended to those who are intrigued by the description; it isn't your average jazz record.

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