Thursday, October 6, 2016

Richard Sussman's 'Evolution Suite': A cosmic outlook expressed in a classical-jazz blend

Richard Sussman is a master of electronics in "Evolution Suite"
It's a little hard to take in music that makes great claims for unifying mankind, yet creating such music has been
an ambition occasionally reaching toward fulfillment at least ever since Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.

Jazz has made some forays into social statements, many of them from black musicians asserting a claim to move beyond oppression or marginalization, such as John Carter's "Castles of Ghana" and Max Roach's "Freedom Now! Suite." But I can't recall an attempt to address the universe and what it may be tending toward besides Richard Sussman's six-movement "Evolution Suite" for jazz quintet, string quartet, and electronics.  The breadth of Sussman's ambition makes me uneasy, yet the musical result is largely convincing.

Recorded last December at Symphony Space in New York City, "The Evolution Suite" (plus "Prevolution," a kind of prequel of related material bringing up the rear) displays the composer's acute sense of how to blend electronics with two contrasting small groups: the Sirius Quartet (the conventional two violins, viola, and cello) and a quintet consisting of an also conventional (from the bop and hard-bop eras) set-up of trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass, and drums.

Sussman manages the piano and the electronics.  The movements are "Into the Cosmic Kitchen," "Relaxin' at Olympus," "Nexus," "Music of the Cubes," and, after a drum solo introduction, "Perpetual Motion." The composer's statement about his work is considered so crucial to its understanding that it appears twice in the accompanying booklet: "By combining jazz improvisation and many diverse rhythms and instrumental textures from throughout the world with contemporary classical music, I feel we can more truly reflect and more strongly connect with a wider cross-section of the multi-cultural society in which we live."

I found the music easier to absorb than this statement about it. For one thing, I didn't hear that rhythms and textures "from throughout the world" are evident in "The Evolution Suite." More fundamentally, a creative artist ought to find his diverse sources of inspiration worth using for the sake of his own self-expression, not because diversity can be assumed to appeal to or represent our society's many cultures. There will be many people acquainted with Sussman's influences individually who won't find his combination at all satisfying. And if he uses words to clarify what he's all about, an artist has to come at the public with an explanation of where his vision came from, without presuming to think those sources are used in a way that are bound to appeal to everyone.

Having gotten that out of the way, this disc struck a sympathetic chord with me. Sussman's use of electronics is smoothly integrated into the acoustic texture. In "Music of the Cubes," for instance, the emergence of ensemble material out of a background of electronic buzzes and whirs has an exciting inevitability, despite the sonic difference of the sources.

Soloing is distributed shrewdly over the varied ensemble backdrop. Electric violinist Zach Brock is on hand to ride the elliptical orbit of a comet in "Nexus." Saxophonist Rich Perry exhibits a wry lyricism nestled in the lofty ease of "Relaxin' at Olympus."  Trumpeter Scott Wendholt is both intense and sprightly in the opening and closing  movements. The composer himself contrasts a rich palette of electronics with a characteristically laconic style at the piano. Moments of outstanding display also come from bassist Mike Richmond and drummer Anthony Pinciotti.

"The Evolution Suite" may not persuade you necessarily that its ambitious program is adequately expressed. But even if you set Sussman's philosophical breadth aside, it deserves respect for informing a satisfying, broadly achieved musical statement well worth hearing on its own terms.