It is a true sign of the selfless musician, the artist who is more interested in what the music evokes than in meaningless demonstrations of technique, when he/she creates a work that is all about texture and creating diverse ambiences that serve predetermined purposes. Percussionist Alex Cline, with Sparks Fly Upward
, proves that the end result is far more important than the means. With a group of like-minded musicians, Cline creates a series of six musical tone poems that are meant to be experienced rather than simply heard.
The first of two projects with the intention of honouring people "whose lives or work left a real imprint," Cline opens with "Rose Window," for his wife Karen. Over a backwash of tranquil synthesizer pads courtesy of keyboardist Wayne Peet, vocalist Aina Kemanis and violinist Jeff Gauthier create lines that intertwine, separate and then blend together again. The music ebbs and flows, with Cline contributing splashes of colour with his large array of percussion, as well as gorgeous work with the kantele, a Finnish board zither.
While there are clear motifs within Cline’s chamber-like compositions, improvisation also plays a part, but not in the traditional sense; and sometimes the line between composition and improvisation is less than clear. Form is fluid; soloists play without ego, surrendering to the composition, eschewing any virtuoso displays while, all the same, demonstrating a deep sense of musicality. Gauthier’s violin solo on the thirty-one minute title track that is the centrepiece of the album, is almost painfully lyrical; it emerges from an initial dark backdrop as a single voice; soon it is joined by bassist Michael Elizondo, who creates a rich counterpoint; gradually the piece builds to a second climax as first Peet, then Cline, guitarist G.E. Stinson and Kemanis join in to create a haunting soundscape that creates a vision of broad vistas, of wide-open landscapes.
"Audacity" is more muscular, as would befit any piece dedicated to the late drummer Tony Williams. From a loose-time introduction reminiscent of Williams’ time with Miles Davis, it transforms into a more rhythmic piece that pays tribute to Williams’ fusion group Lifetime. Stinson solos with reckless abandon before the piece shifts, yet again, this time into a swing section where Peet solos with reference and reverence to Larry Young. But as much as this piece is both anomalous to this recording and a clear homage, it remains true to Cline’s personal vision, with a voice/violin motif that bookends the piece and places it in proper context with the rest of the album.
"Sonnet 9" closes the album on a peaceful yet somehow unsettled note, much like its inspiration, bassist/composer/multi-instrumentalist Eric von Essen, with whom Cline played in a number of contexts until von Essen’s untimely death in 1997. Rilke’s lyrics from "The Sonnets to Orpheus" are both a fitting close to the album and tribute to von Essen; "Although the pool’s reflection blurs before us often: know the image
." Elizondo’s bass dominates the track, but it is Gauthier’s violin that ultimately lifts the spirit, bringing it out of the dark and into the light.
The companion piece to Sparks Fly Upward
, The Constant Flame
, explores further landscapes, and the two recordings together form a single statement, a single vision, which is to create music that transcends style, transcends boundaries. Alex Cline proves that the goal of any artist should be to hone his/her craft, develop the technical skill to understand the language, and then use that skill to expand the language. Sparks Fly Upward
is another impeccably recorded album from Cryptogramophone, a label with the reputation for cultivating artists who broaden musical horizons; and is further evidence of Cline as a selfless musician who strives, through his music, to evoke strong imagery and deep emotion.