Daniel Levin – Inner Landscape (CF 224)
Don’t Go It Alone exhorted Daniel Levin’s debut CD, but now he’s done just that. The main challenge in making a set of solo cello improvisations is to avoid channeling J.S. Bach, or that celebrated Irish composer K. O’Daly. This Levin does with the absolute confidence that comes from certitude in technique and from having enough experience in the studio – this must be the eighth or ninth disc under his name – to know that making records isn’t, or isn’t any longer, about strewing the landscape with monoliths but rather with documenting a particular moment in creative and personal evolution.
Levin’s previous recordings are dotted across a variety of labels: Joe Morris’s Riti put out the splendid debut; there’s a good duo with Rob Brown on the Polish Not Two; but the bulk of recording has been in a quartet setting, with the unusual combination of cello, trumpet, vibraphone and bass. That’s the format on two excellent hatOLOGY recordings and on Bacalhau for Clean Feed. It’s quite a big and particular sound to leave behind, but this time Levin has eschewed composition and musical companionship in favor of a more exploratory and what might appear to be a more personal approach.
The qualifier in the title reinforces a received notion that solo improvisation, and particularly on the strings, is definitively introspective. The qualifier is dropped for the six separate pieces here and that makes better sense of the music, for there is nothing musing or self-absorbed about it. It moves, sometimes confidently, sometimes more tentatively. It inhabits different areas of sound and shade. Sometimes it hesitates and stares, or listens. But throughout one has a sense of an artist in motion, engaging with an environment or simply passing through it.
In a short sleeve note, Ed Hazell states that Levin likened the process of making the album to his childhood passion for playing with Lego bricks, the sheer ludic delight of putting shapes and colors together with no insistence on utility or form. It’s an interesting analogy and because it is personal, it has an undeniable validity, but for me listening to this music was far more like watching a youngster negotiate a bigger physical environment, as my son does on our bit of hillside, seeing him get into trouble, but because he was unaware that he was in trouble getting out of it again with a kind of insouciant grace; or simply stopping and staring hard at something the remote watcher couldn’t see. There are moments on Inner Landscape when Levin seems to have lost his line but because there was no set line in the first place, the music simply continues and with utter logic. He resists temptation to indulge every aspect of his technique: heavy bow-weight here, a little pizz. there, perhaps some col legno a little down the way. This isn’t a test piece. It is genuine improvisation, intelligent, physical, ambulatory. Money down, I’d still prefer to listen to the quartet records, where trumpeter/cornetists Dave Ballou or Nate Wooley and vibist Matt Moran provide shinier, more metallic tones, and bassists Joe Morris or Peter Bitenc reinforce the string element with bottom-weight and pulse, but Inner Landscape does earn its title in the end in that it delivers an important and still-emerging artist at his most direct, not soliloquizing but simply living and playing in three dimensions, and creating the fourth as he goes along.