Polyrhythm Madness

Kronomorfic (David Borgo and Paul Pellegrin) — Perambulate (pfMentum, 2010)

The rhythms on this album are just crazy. The song titles even look like they’d be full of intricate math tricks.

But it’s not just a forest of time signatures. What’s really brain-warping are the polyrhythms. That’s where you have a time like 7-over-5, where one instrument completes 7 beats in the same time that another completes 5.  You’re left with the sense that something’s obviously not 4/4-correct, but simple counting doesn’t help you understand it. The opening “Deprong Mori” is almost enough to give you motion sickness — catchy and yet impenetrable, a spinny ride that keeps swerving at the wrong time.

The sextet’s instrumentation is a good fit for the rhythmic chatter, with vibraphone, bass, and drums or hand percussion stacking up in tumbling, interlocking ways.  Atop that, there’s sax and harmonica, often playing their own line askew to the others. And there are solos — passionate, swinging solos that cut across the time lines, like jazzy braille darting through an other-dimensional sighted world. I’m impressed that the soloists don’t get lost.

I enjoy unusual time signatures. My experience with them started the way many listeners’ does, I would think, with the easy count-offs of prog rock (Genesis, King Crimson) and Dave Brubeck. Later, I explored Zappa’s world, where there are odd time signatures but also a richer complexity mined from modern-classical masters. And I enjoy, but haven’t deeply delved into, the through-composed pieces of Rich Woodson’s Ellipsis , which sound like they’re packed with insane metric complexities. Polyrhythms are a different level of intricacy, though, and one I haven’t studied much. How does one even begin to rehearse music like this?

Most of Perambulate does have a jazz feeling. “Dendochrone Currents” flows with manic percussion but carries a breezy feel, closer to the relaxation so many people associate with jazz (which masks an 8-over-12-over-15 brain-twister of a rhythm).  “Repolarization” is a mellower track that seems to rely on unmatched time signatures rather than true polyrhythms. (OK, I admit, I have no idea. It’s what the liner notes seem to indicate.) And then you’ve got the solos, such as the harmonica and vibes on “Perambulate,” where your brain is welcomed to skip the math and just enjoy the jazzy momentum.

So, if you’re ready to graduate beyond the simple wonderment of 7/8 time, this album might be for you. Many of the individual riffs are even hummable, but — well, good luck trying that. Better to lean back and absorb the whole feeling of each track.  Then read the liner notes where they explain all the numbers stuffed into each piece.