By Derek Stone
“Aquamarine,” the first track on the Daniel Levin Quartet’s newest release for Clean Feed, Live at Firehouse 12, starts a bit deceptively: Torbjörn Zetterberg, who first appeared with the group on 2015’s excellent Friction, lays out a throbbing, propulsive bass-line that sounds as if it got ripped right out of the Cortex playbook – it’s slinky, smoldering, and suggestive of hard-hitting grooves just around the bend. Anyone familiar with Daniel Levin’s work, however, knows not to trust first impressions. His compositions are apt to morph, shedding layers and taking them on with equal ease. In the case of “Aquamarine,” it’s a matter of accretion; what sounds like a simple, straightforward rhythm is actually a ligament running through the piece, a clothesline upon which the other members of the quartet can gradually hang their sinuous sheets of sound.
Live at Firehouse 12 was recorded in May 2016, and it marks the second live document from the esteemed quartet. Like his compositions, however, Levin’s quartet is always changing shapes – whereas previous iterations included a trumpet (the incredible Nate Wooley), this album features Matt Moran on vibraphone, Mat Maneri on viola, Torbjörn Zetterberg on bass, and Levin himself on cello. With such a string-heavy configuration, it might be thought that the Daniel Levin Quartet is restricted in what it can accomplish sonically. However, these tracks (some composed, some improvised) reveal a group that is eminently resourceful, even with a relatively limited number of textures to work with. On the aforementioned “Aquamarine,” for instance, Levin’s cello and Maneri’s viola produce mournful wails that occasionally veer from the central motif into more dissonant territory – it is during these moments that the strings seem to melt into one another, dripping with corrosive tones. Levin and Maneri are not strangers, of course, having most notably paired on 2015’s The Transcendent Function. Here, their familiarity allows them to explore musical landscapes that can often come across as forbidding and bleak.
One of the busiest and most complex pieces here, “Jumpman,” is a rewarding look at how the group handles faster tempos. Zetterberg leaps restlessly from note to note, while Matt Moran’s evocative vibraphone lines occasionally emerge from the murk like arcs of electricity. The cello is downright hair-raising at times, with Levin scraping through notes at a blistering pace; following close, Maneri’s viola both complements him and adds an extra layer, with some segments that echo and others that seem to attach barbs to Levin’s already fierce passages. “Glacier,” an improvisation, finds the Quartet knocking, screeching, and creaking its way through a tone-poem that acts as something of a palette cleanser before an intriguing and occasionally disorienting duet between Levin and Maneri. As expected, “Mat / Daniel” is a saw-toothed interchange between the two that acts as a primer to the fascinating musical dialect that they have built up over the years – notes swoop, swell, and bend to the point of breaking, but Levin and Maneri never lose sight of the dialogue. Another duet, between Moran and Zetterberg, is icier and less inclined to wild flights, but it’s the perfect way to lead the listener into the astonishing abstractions of the closer, “Myths & Legends.”
Live at Firehouse 12 finds the Daniel Levin Quartet expanding its sound in small but significant ways. While Levin has pared down the tonal possibilities that the group can engage in (Wooley will be missed), he has brought together a set of players that, due to their tight sense of interplay and near-telepathic understanding, can arguably do more justice to the wonderful compositions that he has brought to the table. In fact, Live at Firehouse 12 proves that, even without a compositional framework, the Daniel Levin Quartet can put on one hell of a show.