Daniel Levin Quartet – Organic Modernism (CF 212)
For a moment, recall your mentality circa age nine through fifteen: what is the phrase the rebellious you had to endure at least five times per day? “Stay away from there”, or just, “Stop it!” Specifically, this was applied to scenarios where you stood, say, near a rapidly flowing irrigation canal, dipping your toe in the water — you just had to test it out. Or maybe engaged in the “I’m not touching you” game with your hands an inch in front of someone’s face. In other words, you needed to be as close as possible without actually doing something.
It’s this sort of turbulence that makes Organic Modernism so successful and fascinating. The quartet of Daniel Levin (cello), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Matt Moran (vibraphone) and Peter Bitenc (upright bass) draw a line on the floor, mark it “Bebop” and playfully move near, almost on, briefly on, then away (not too far) from this guidepost, making judicious detours and extensions to forge something anomalous.
Bitenc begins “Action Painting” with an insistent walking line, taking on the role of loose metronome for the remaining trio to coalesce. Levin powers in with slurs and glissandi, soon twisting in tandem with Wooley’s woozy dips and staccato pops and Moran’s lower register brume; when Bitenc and Moran join at the first “jazz as we think of it” spot, it’s a nostalgic dance that you could, in a blind test, mistake for a Ron Carter / Milt Jackson duet. But of course, as the album title implies, the focus here is on The New, and the mix soon shatters into fragments with each member now absorbed in anti-solo (i.e. Moran messes around with his tremolo speed, Levin scrapes and scratches, Wooley recapitulates the aforementioned glissando motif); they resume this approach with “Zero Gravity” where the group chafes in a stew of drones (via Wooley’s breathy tones and Moran’s crescendo ostinatos), occasional dotting bursts and a motorized radio-like buzz. On “Lattice”, Levin and Bitenc freely battle and embrace, battle and embrace in a graceful fit of pizzicato, bowing, sprints to the highest pitch and string-snapping; “Expert Set” is a similar setting with Wooley nimbly adapting, leading and blasting Levin until both men fade into groggy shadows. Forgoing the far-out side of the quartet’s aesthetic, “Audacity” is a remarkable experiment in agreement-into-polyrhythm and sudden tempo shifts, first swaggering with long unison lines, then bashing the air with the sonic equivalent of scribbling, soon sinking into long passages of Bluesy head-nodding, faster, tonal interlopers, a blend of these, etc.
From the liner notes (written by the great Art Lange): “These are concepts of the 20th century modernism extended into a new century still in need of its radical adjustment — that is, a rejection of the failed conventions of realism in favor of a new, open, freer perspective…” True, but that shouldn’t be confused with pastiche. Because this crew spent the time learning the language, internalizing it, their innocent “who me?” mischief sounds poignant and masterful, not sloppy or forced different-just-to-be-different — yes, 500 words later I’m trying to tell you it’s organic.