Bagatellen review by Clifford Allen

Dennis González NY Quartet – Dance of the Soothsayer’s Tongue (CF 094)

Trumpeter and composer Dennis González’ latest release on Clean Feed comes from what’s probably a rather sizeable archive of tapes in his closet. A little over half of Dance of the Soothsayer’s Tongue captures a gig recorded at Tonic four years ago with tenorman Ellery Eskelin, bassist Mark Helias and drummer Michael T.A. Thompson. The remainder of the disc was recorded in a New York studio in 2004 with the same quartet. It’s sort of a requiem for the club, which closed its doors last year in the face of rising rents and business problems we’ll never quite understand; though its jazz policy had long been curtailed, the venue was still one of the few options for independent and creative music in Downtown Manhattan.

González always has a knack for bringing together interesting groups, and this latest release is no exception. Helias is, of course, a stalwart of vanguard New York jazz, and Thompson has long cut his teeth working with Sabir Matteen, Steve Swell, and other free improvisation heavies. Eskelin might be the outlier here – his trio with accordionist Andrea Parkins and drummer Jim Black has cut a unique chunk out of jazz’s history and served it up on a darkly irreverent platter, but it’s rare to see him working as a sideman. Here, his mastery of postbop tenor and his strong rhythmic guise are welcomed.

The leader starts the set unaccompanied with a repeating and almost calypso-like figure; he’s quickly joined in duo by Thompson’s tumbling polyrhythmics, as González varies the length and charge of his brittle brass bits. The pair enters into a slinky rhumba, long, thick and sure lines recalling some of Don Ellis’ Moorish figures. González, like Ellis and Ted Curson, is an expert at fattening up in the absence of a front-line partner, and his duet with Thompson is a fantastic example of this. “The Matter At Hand” is a stately unison line over limber accompaniment, and is the first “live” track of the disc. The piano-less arrangement echoes the robustness of a post-Mingus language rather than Ornette and Don Cherry. Helias’ solo is an aberration of slapping pizzicato into dense, percussive filigree, a fullness of notes that contrasts the leader’s fullness of tone.

Eskelin follows with an amazing extrapolation, working from the velvety bowels of phrase up to a polished, straight-arrow keen and back down into Ike Quebec’s candle-lit grave. Thompson works backwards into the bassist’s hyperactive plucks, slaps and jabs, segueing into the arid rhythms of the title track with the leader’s wide-vibrato bray in full view. Well-placed is Thompson’s solo feature “Soundrhythium,” a streetwise minimalism of bells, rimshots, thunder-sheet and kalimba that updates Amadeo Roldán and Cage for the new-jazz set.

Dance of the Soothsayer’s Tongue is yet another fascinating entry in Dennis Gonzalez’ catalog and proof that he and his cohorts find ways to express something you’ve never heard, even in a timeworn context.

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