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Gongol by Ori Kaplan Percussion Ensemble

One of the major detriments included in the jazz recording industry's last-decade crossover from analog to digital is the question of what exactly to do with all that new space. The increased time limit of the CD shook the very foundation of how to present a coherent artistic statement in a world of comfortable and consistent three-tunes-to-a-side LPs. In terms of reissues, this is usually averted by adding alternate takes, doubling up original albums, or simply ignoring that space altogether. For new artists, this leaves all recordings in a doubly-pressurized crux - never shortchange the listener, but make sure you keep it interesting.

This pressure obviously weighs heavily on alto saxist Ori Kaplan, whether consciously or not, and provides the major fly in this album's otherwise catching and rhythmic soup. All the more tragic, too, because Kaplan has, with this Percussion Ensemble, seized upon an idea central to the secret that has always moved jazz along: the difference is in the drumming. Rhythm (and its attendant percussive choices) was the force more than any other which took jazz beyond swing into bop, and even further into Coltrane's stratospheric sixties. Certainly, drum ensembles are amongst the oldest combinations in music, and not even particularly new to jazz. But the spaces left to be explored in such a context remain altogether enticing.

Kaplan, in true Tonic/Knitting Factory form, has not established a percussion ensemble proper, but rather placed his own Bird-on-Braxtonian-speed alto in communion with the surprisingly large color palette of master drummer (unofficially) Susie Ibarra and more unknown Geoff Mann. Kaplan also made a wise choice by enlisting pianist Andrew Bemkey to provide a tonal layering for his own sharp and jagged lines, and a sort of sonic mattress full of the Princess' unsettling peas. There is obviously a great deal of energy here, and an admirable amount of forethought; as well, the constantly changing roles of Ibarra and Mann (from djembe and djun-djun to regular trap drums, and even a stint on mandolin) provide a backdrop which becomes foreground in just the right way: inadvertently.

However, the ideas have a hard time carrying their freshness straight through to the end. At a short (for CDs) 48 minutes spread over ten tracks, cutting off the final three may seem like pushing the limits, but that is really what would have created the most powerful statement. Kaplan arrives on the opening "Crisis Dream" blowing fire over the almost-backbeat of Mann and the bent-angle vamps of Bemkey. This is an enthusiasm echoed in Susie Ibarra's frenetic djembe in the furious sections of "Blow Daddy", and is weighted beautifully by the sultry-groove drone of "Slow Boat", or the should-have-been-album closer "Prayer for Ramon". Throughout, Kaplan and crew embrace rhythm and its surrounding spaces head-on, seizing on tempo when called for, letting it collapse when insupportable.

Sadly, then, this could have emerged as a succinct and tightly-argued statement, qualities more and more scarcely seen in this digital era. The question and response quality between the back to back "Sky Drops" and "Dark Sun" are the perfect example of this - with the same instrumentation, the first formless and congealing, its reply pointed, quick, and bullet-hard; the contrast that shadows their sameness exhibits the breathless sort of coherence-through-experimentation at which this group excels. It is a true shame, then, that the last three tracks - in a barely-twitching, aimless kind of way - shroud that whole argument in one final, dissipated question mark: why include them at all?

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ori Kaplan Percussion Ensemble
  • CD Title: Gongol
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Knitting Factory
  • Musicians: Ori Kaplan (alto sax), Andrew Bemkey (piano), Susie Ibarra (various percussion), Geoff Mann (various percussion, mandolin)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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