Saturday, March 19, 2011

Dennis Gonzalez/Ingebrigt Haker Flaten's "The Hymn Project"

I first met trumpeter Dennis Gonzalez in 1978, when he was younger than his youngest son is now and had just started to self-release recordings of his ensembles on his own daagnim label. I encountered him again in 2002, when he played the Wreck Room in Fort Worth with Yells At Eels, the band which his sons Aaron and Stefan -- who'd grown up in an environment that nurtured creativity, and cut their musical teeth playing grindcore and crust-punk -- coaxed him out of musical retirement to form with them in 1999.

In the intervening years, Dennis had established himself as a world-class jazz artist, performing with a veritable "who's who" of creative musicians in his travels throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, and releasing over 30 albums on a variety of European and American labels. Today, he continues to criss-cross the globe, equally at home in concert halls and DIY punk spaces. His jazz broadcasts on the local NPR affiliate were an, um, oasis of sanity on the airwaves, before they replaced him with a football player. (It might seem petty to be grousing about public broadcasting now that the Republican Congress here is about to eviscerate it, but it was still a dumb move back then.) He's also a gifted poet and visual artist, and he's taught in Dallas public schools for 35 years now. The term "Renaissance man" definitely applies.

At age 24, Dennis seemed more mature than his years; there was a "centeredness" about him that seemed to flow from some spiritual source. Even in its most turbulent moments, his music has that same quality of inner stillness -- one which I've recently written of sensing in the performances of Van Morrison and Patti Smith. (Don Cherry had it, too, and Charlie Haden has it.) That quality permeates his latest daagnim release, a collaboration with Norwegian bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten, with whom he shares the experience of having played music in church. While you won't find the tunes on The Hymn Project in anybody's hymnal, they embody the spirit, if not the letter, of songs from sacred spaces.

Dennis' "Hymn to the Incoherent" opens the proceedings with balaphon and gently-attacked percussion instruments, summoning the muse the way the Art Ensemble of Chicago used to. Stefan Gonzalez has blended his aggressive punk roots with the direct influence of master percussionists like Alvin Fielder, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Louis Moholo-Moholo, and Famoudou Don Moye to develop a highly personal style that's both assertive and expressive. Haker Flaten has a dark, spare sound reminiscent of Jimmy Garrison and Reggie Workman. Throughout, he and the other string players -- Aaron Gonzalez on bass and Henna Chou on cello -- share space effectively, contrasting low and high registers or arco and pizzicato attacks. And Dennis is always lyrical, whether playing arcing long tones or furious flurries of notes.

Haker Flaten's "Jeg Rade Vil Alle I Undommens Dager" begins with Dennis playing a bluesy theme, shadowed by a contrapuntal line from Chou. Then the composer joins in with a modal vamp, over which trumpet and cello alternately restate the theme in unison and intertwine solo statements, giving way to a free section, which Stefan underpins with responsive accompaniment. This segues seamlessly into Dennis' "Doxology," which follows a circuitous path to its elegiac theme. Next, Haker Flaten's "Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg" opens with chiming bass harmonics before its stately theme emerges, played in unison by trumpet and arco bass while pizzicato bass and drums churn and roil below. Dennis' appropriately-named "Sweet Hour of Prayer" sets the stage for the closing "Herido," propelled by a rumbling bass ostinato over which Dennis sings (in Spanish) the words of St. John of the Cross.

All in all, like Trane's A Love Supreme and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, a fervent prayer for troubled times. Cop via Amulets.


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