Circles Within Circles Within Denman Maroney’s Head

Denman MaroneyMartingale (self-released, 2020)

I’m familiar with Denman Maroney through his work with hyperpiano — prepared piano that adds a dynamic element, such as applying a metal bowl as a “slide” on the strings. Martingale employs a different kind of tinkering. It uses jazz composition as its starting point, in an upbeat quartet format, but things are awry. It’s dis-aligned jazz.

The underlying complexity comes from polyrhythms — or what Maroney calls temporal harmony, with instruments tracking different rhythmic cycles, such as three-over-two or five-over-four. The foundation is often single-note rhythms rather than chords, and while I found myself craving the jazzy sound of chords, their absence builds a lightness (as in, the opposite of density) that helps my ears track the multiple cycles spooling out. Even on a casual listen, you can feel a geometry in the music, and Maroney provides enough room to take a peek at the schematic, revealing the cycles within cycles.

The thickest stack of time layers — six of them, apparently — is in the title track, which opens the album. “Martingale” takes a patient approach, building energy while maintaining enough space to discern the rhythms.

The album doesn’t come across as mathematical. “New One Two” builds from what sounds like a simple keyboard riff, except its repetitions are constantly shifting — an innocent rhythm, bouncing like a tumbleweed. Then there’s “Sea Set Wheat” (a play on words: six, sept, huit would be 6:7:8 in French), which coaxes a swinging rhythm out of polyrhythmic cycles. Players then break off into a free improvisation, and it’s tempting to think that they might be staying in their respective polyrhythmic times while doing so. (I don’t actually believe this, but it’s fun to imagine.)

I feel like I also have to mention “Off Centerpiece,” which takes the skeleton of the jazz standard “Centerpiece” and disjoints it.

For another taste of polyrhythms, the band Kronomorfic has a sound even more deeply steeped in conventional free jazz (now there’s an oxymoron). Their 2010 release features a sextet including vibraphone and sax. And in 2015, the not-so-conventional piano trio Dawn of Midi released Dysnomia, a through-composed album based on hypnotically chill cycles. I got to see them perform it live. The piano’s minimal, chordless touch — essentially becoming a percussion instrument — combined with acoustic bass and drums made for a spellbinding set.

4 thoughts on “Circles Within Circles Within Denman Maroney’s Head

  1. Speaking of math i am producing a session with Stephanie chou Who I learned of thanks to a write up and down beat Magazine and in addition to Saxophone invoice and composition she was a math major at Columbia university – – we are doing a tribute to Paul J Cohen of Stanford who was a field prize winner and a personal friend, regarding the continuum hypothesis

  2. I think we got cut off but I wanted to add that Steven Cohen the son of the mathematician was a disc jockey at KZSU, briefly relative to you. The Cohens lived on Princeton Street in College Terrace, Palo Alto but with his sudden fame the University let him buy a historic house on San Juan Hill very near that of the president and the five Cohens lived there roughly 40 years.

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