Spiller Alley

Larry Ochs, Miya Masaoka, Peggy Lee — Spiller Alley (Rogue Art, 2008)

source: roguart.com, note the missing 'e'Stef got it right on his Free Jazz blog eight months ago: This is not-so-small music built on small sounds. I’ll echo him in calling it “light:” Even when Peggy Lee is bowing hard on cello, or Miya Masaoka is digging away at the koto, there’s an airiness to the sound. You’re in a whirlwind of feathers.

The quieter pieces display these qualities most strongly, highlighting the cello and koto with Larry Ochs working in small phrases on sopranino sax, careful not to crack the delicacy of the sound.

“micro mirror”* is a lovely quiet exploration with nighttime cello plucking and tense, soft koto trills. “neoNawi” is closer to what you might call a traditional setting. Lee’s cello carves bold, mourning lines, while the koto produces abstract plinks and, occasionally, one of those lovely bending notes.

The album opens aggressively with “nobody knows,” full of tumbling koto and, later, some high, squeaky cello. Ochs keeps a light touch, as on the quieter tracks, but allows himself more skronk with the tenor sax.

The 18-minute title track feels more like “regular” free improvisation, with that abstract and tart sound. Maybe that’s because of the long stretches of group work. Snippets of composition help ground the piece. They pop into view like tiny organized dances — there’s one about 12 minutes into the piece, another at the very end. On first listen, they seemed effectively placed, creating a nice listening journey.

“last light” is a surprisingly rugged piece. That’s what I get for peeking at the track times: You see a 4:49 song to close the album, and you assume it’s a quiet lullabye. It starts that way. But there’s some jazzy, growling tenor sax by the end, alongside scratchy cello. It’s one of the album’s loudest moments.

* I’m honoring the lower-case titles, which in this case are clearly delineated (as opposed to album covers where everything just happens to be in lower-case). It looks weird to me, and I don’t think I like it, but I’ll try it once.

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