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Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen by Keith Yaun Quartet

Jazz is not, despite what you may have heard, "America's classical music." First of all -and this is a major pet peeve of mine- the phrase follows the unfortunate custom of substituting "America" for what is actually a country known as the "United States of America." America -or more properly the Americas- refers to a host of countries on more than one continent including Brazil, Canada, Chile, and Haiti. Secondly and more importantly, jazz has a rich enough history and canon so that it can, should and needs to be considered on its own terms. Evaluating jazz by the standards of any other style will produce criticism is hardly insightful.

And yet the two styles have definite similarities; not the least of which is that classical music and jazz tend to require more from the listener than most other styles do and consequently both styles find themselves, at least in the U.S., increasingly relegated to public and other noncommercial radio stations. It should thus come as no surprise that musicians on the fringes of classical and jazz increasingly find themselves creating hybrids of the two styles.

The Keith Yaun Quartet has added a notable piece to this crossover canon with the release of Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen As the name would suggest to those in the know, this music consists of versions of compositions by the great composer Oliver Messiaen and the music is exactly what such a description would lead one to one to expect. This music is soft and somewhat quiet, dry and lyrical, improvised and deliberate, and full of seriousness yet sprinkled with humor.

There are two main elements in this music. The first is between leader, arranger, and guitarist Keith Yaun, electric violinist Mat Maneri, and guitarist Bern Nix. As I hardly even need to mention, all three play stringed instruments and they tend to blend together on this disc so as to make it difficult to tell who is playing what at many points on Amen. While unfortunate in theory, this confusion isn't all that large of a problem because the collective sound of this trio is so impressive. They rumble and slice through empty space in ways that are much more commonly associated with reed instruments. Chops aren't in question here because none of the selections moves at a fast clip but neither do any of them have a ballad vibe to them. All three rotate gracefully rotate between lyrical work and more moody playing. They do all of this so skillfully that the lack of a bassist is unlikely to jump out at listeners.

The laggardly pace both puts constraints on drummer Johnny McLellan and opens up new doors for him. McLellan doesn't have to worry about keeping up with this music and becomes free to gently and somewhat impressionistically keep up with this music.

In some ways, Amen comes across as a low-key version of Ornette Coleman's Prime Time group, which is fitting since Nix played with Coleman during that period on important recordings such as Body Meta. Still this music seems to lack the energy and creativity found in that group and just comes off as mournful and, after the first few listens, repetitive. If you are a fan of Messiaen or the musicians involved, you should get Amen. Otherwise, it is an interesting spin but probably not essential.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Keith Yaun Quartet
  • CD Title: Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2000
  • Record Label: Boxholder
  • Musicians: Bern Nix (guitar), Keith Yaun (guitar), Mat Maneri (electric baritone violin), Johnny McLellan (percussion)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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