Screeching strings begin "The Mayan (The Worriers)" which opens this disc. Jason Hwang’s violin creates a pulsating sound that the other musicians try to match. The pace builds and builds until the tempo just drops with less than a minute left in this barely three minute long track. The four players then imitate sirens. It sounds quite impressive although it is unclear what exactly the meaning is.
This track is an anomaly on Under the Pyramid because it seems like it is in a hurry to tell a story. There is nothing wrong with this as it was one the most enjoyable of the 10 cuts but bassist Dominic Duval and his associates take a much more measured approach for the rest of the disc.
All of the players get plenty of room to perform with and without accompaniment. At the same time, none of it seems unnecessary or redundant. The players are always moving together even as they play separately or in various combinations. The disc thus comes across as a novel that takes many detours but rarely without reason and never fails to keep its eye on the bigger issue.
And just what is this bigger issue? Duval makes it clear in the linear notes when he says, "I dedicate this music to the people of Mexico for their great strength and courage and ability to withstand the most difficult hardships. They will continue to survive against all the odds. A great lesson in history for us all to learn from and draw strength." The music found here is certainly that of hardship and pain although there is little evidence of the hope that Duval implies.
Instead listeners will find a more sorrowful and ambiguous message. There is a somewhat unsettling quality to the music here. Whether it comes from Duval, Hwang, Ron Lawrence’s viola or Tomas Ulrich’s cello, there is a consistent feeling that the music is about to fall apart as you listen to. That the players are building to some great releases that never quite come. It may come from moments like those on "Na Kuba Kai (Her Name is Moon God)" where the four exchange moments of imitation before progressing ahead as a quartet. And it may come from the fury found on tracks likes the previously mentioned opener. But it is always there.
Duval has earned a number of accolades both for his solo work and his collaborations with Cecil Taylor, Joe McPhee, and Ivo Perelman amongst others. The bassist takes a step back on this disc even though he is the leader. The entire group receives songwriting credit and Duval seems in the background for much of the disc. There are a couple moments when he steps out but never for the more than a brief period. Duval is nonetheless the background of this disc and provides the pacing and often marks changes in the mood with a tasty lick. This opens up room for the other musicians to shine.
It might be going a bit far to call this music jazz. Genres are of course socially constructed and devoid of any inherent definitions, but Under the Pyramid does sound far more like what we define as classical than jazz. Still there is plenty of improvisation here and anybody who likes to music that’s easy to concentrate on, as opposed to say music that is easy to concentrate to, will enjoy this disc.