Saxophonist/composer Quinsin Nachoff’s inspiration for “Path of Totality”, an ambitious 2-LP/CD release, arose from the moon’s total eclipse of the sun in 2017. That event became a dramatic, natural metaphor for the band’s evolutionary creative process, plus a reminder (amidst current political and environmental discord being experienced from both sides of the ocean) of light’s assured emanation from and triumph over transitory darkness. A concept album then, with a message of solace and hope. All things will pass as the phrase goes…
The music written and performed here doesn’t make for easy listening. It does, however, make for rewarding listening, given the time and space required for it to sink in. At times fatalistic, at times hopeful, it is ultimately the ear of the listener that will decide how they feel about it. To my ears, there are a few oddities about the music that I struggle with, but overall it is bold and forthright with spellbinding diversity and attention to detail that is incredibly compelling.
Compositionally the music sits somewhere in-between modern jazz, contemporary classical and the experimental. It’s daring and alluringly audacious, yet not to the point that the listener wonders what on Earth is going on. Far from it in fact, with the composer obviously having the skill and presence of mind to bring different genres of music together seamlessly to create a tour-de-force of sound, aided in no small measure by the musicians involved.
Tenor and soprano saxophonist Nachoff is joined by a whole host of musicians that pull together to help make the composer’s creative ideas work so well. Leading the way are alto and C melody saxophonist David Binney, pianist/keys man Matt Mitchell, and drummers Kenny Wollesen and Nate Wood. The larger ensemble of musicians involved employ a vast array of instruments and a vivid palette of colours to create something that is consistently surprising as its sound and direction morphs from moment to moment over the course of the six epic-length pieces.
The 1st CD opens with “Path of Totality”, with its awkward-sounding phased double-drum patterns alternately exploding from one ear to another. It’s not long before I realised it was my brain that struggled with this… just letting my preconceived ideas go actually made things sound much better. One of the most consistently innovative recordings I’ve heard in a while sparks into life on “Bounce”. An incredible piece of music, with a heady mix of influences (I can hear Igor Stravinsky, John Coltrane and Pink Floyd just for starters). Nachoff is an artist that takes the idea of “experimentation” quite literally. The informative liner notes point to this stating that the composer takes his interest in science beyond simple inspiration and that working with physicist Dr Stephen Morris, they translate experimental data into musical form. The concept is interesting, to say the least, with the percussive outbursts and musical call-and-response of “Bounce”, built on the mathematical model of a bouncing ball. Regardless of whether this is of interest to the listener who might only be interested in what he’s hearing, not what the music was inspired by, it is undoubtedly a wonderful piece of music. The 3rd and final track on CD1 is “Toy Piano Meditation”. I love this. It may be based on John Cage’s “Toy Piano Suite” of 1948, but this exemplary music making is very much 21st Century. As with all of his input throughout this album, David Binney’s transcendental coda is described by Nachoff as “one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard”. I most certainly wouldn’t disagree with him.
“March Macabre” opens the 2nd CD. Its sombre, downbeat mood is punctuated by oddly flirtatious saxes, creating a mood of unnerving horror. Depicting the momentary darkness shrouding the planet, the tune benefits from a healthy dose of bleak humour. Wollesen’s ‘march machine’ provides the marching beat that gives the piece its totalitarian note. By the end though, the lockstep has been broken and individual freedom restored. The Baroque-sounding “Splatter” begins with a solo harpsichord improvisation, before progressing through a cosmic haze of jagged rhythms and erratic melodies. Fragmented with electronic wizardry this piece is both intriguing and enlightening in the way that a unique musical culture seems to be crafted within its strangely alluring incoherence. The final track “Orbital Resonances” sums up everything this band are about; imaginative improvisation through solos and gilt-edged structure, wrapped around an attitude of musical courage and experimentation.
“Path of Totality” might not be for the faint-hearted, but there’s no doubting its excellence on both a compositional and performance level. A remarkable achievement from all concerned and a listening journey well worth undertaking.