Evaporation: Sketching With Silence

Eli Wallace and Ben CohenEvaporation (Eschatology, 2020)

“Noise” music doesn’t have to be loud. It can be contemplative, as Pauline Oliveros showed us with her work in deep listening. On Evaporation, pianist Eli Wallace and Ben Cohen follow that aesthetic, creating bundles of action while leaving the blank canvas mostly blank. It’s a wide-angle landscape contrasting rapid motion and stillness.

The 33-minute “Saturation” is the main event. Wallace tests out all manner of prepared piano — a passage of tightly percussive strings against a fluttering of sax from Cohen, or a ringing strum of the stringboard. Cohen produces long streams of non-tonal monologue but also works in the almost subliminal language of long buzzes and breaths.

Informally, “Saturation” could be divided in sections according to the loud/quiet transitions. The early stages feature bursts of noise that couldn’t be called quiet, but the overall effect is spare.

The quietude is not for the faint of heart. Midway through, “Saturation” becomes a hearing test, with distant clatter — a metallic resonance out of the piano, whispery air through the saxophone — nestled between thick silences. That sets us up for the stretch of light metallic hail that ends the piece, not a “grand” finale so much as a satisfying bit of punctuation to close things out.

The 10-minute title track similarly stretches out across its time. Midway through, the sound truly evaporates, leaving a near-silent percussive chatter that gradually dissolves into nothingness. As a listening experience, it requires the right mindset, and that’s true of the whole album. If you come in expecting “free jazz,” the stubborn quietude could feel abrasive. Taken on its own terms, as that expansive canvas, it can be satisfying and thought-provoking.

Grand Gestures for Piano & Drums

Dialectical Imagination — The Angel and the Brute Sing Songs of Rapture (Atma Nadi, 2017)

coverThe piano-drums duo of Dialectical Imagination is all about chasing a big sound, but not in a noisy way.

Eli Wallace (also of the Bay Area trio Sound Etiquette — who play tonight at Octopus Literary Salon, incidentally) provides jittery and hammering piano laced with jazz and classical elements. It’s like heavy, elegant drapery crashing down on your head. That’s paired with the thunderous but sure-handed drumming of Rob Pumpelly, formerly of prog band miRthkon.

“Angel and the brute” is a good way to describe both sides of the music — it gushes lushly in one moment, then screams with adrenaline-rush urgency.

The 12-minute “Sky in Eye Free of I” is a good example. It opens with some sophisticated, jazzy dabbling — Pumpelly on brushes, even — that soon begins to speed up and unravel. By minute 8, Wallace is stabbing mercilessly at the bass notes while Pumpelly, now using drumsticks, batters away deftly.

 
“Immutable Light” is a power play, with Wallace sternly hammering away for a dramatic opening and Pumpelly taking a strong solo full of toms rolls and cymbal crashes, in a style closer to serious classical percussion than metal-like thrash. “Rungs” is another good example of high-energy bobbing and weaving, possibly the most exhilarating track on here.

One dial down the notch in intensity is the jittery “Turnabout,” where both players show tasteful restraint during Wallace’s hyperactive splashing.

“Deepest View’s Horizon You” starts out describing vast, mysterious caverns, then dissolves into a lyrical and downright pretty ending for the album.

If you buy the album in physical form, there’s a fun twist: It comes on “faux cassette” — a USB drive in a cassette-shaped housing. You can also download and stream the album on Bandcamp.

An Improv Trio, Making Up the Rules

Sound Etiquette — Sound Etiquette (Orenda, 2016)

a2542493565_16Oakland-based trio Sound Etiquette starts with the ingredients of fusion and soul — electric piano, sax, and drums, and an open spirit. What they create, though, are improvised pieces across an impressive spectrum of moods ranging from jazzy to jamming to abstract.

The music might appeal to the jam-band crowd, but it feels closer to the realm of hardscrabble free jazz. Each of the pieces on Sound Etiquette’s debut album sticks to one core idea. They set the rules as they go, sticking with them until the song has played itself out.

All the tracks clock in at less then 9 minutes, and most have some grounding in a traditional mindframe of jazz or rock. “Entrance,” for example, does groove, flashing the swagger of jazz electronica. It’s a friendly piece that shows off the band’s charisma.

 
“A Clearing” builds from conventional jazz patterns: a smoky, bluesy saxophone entrance leading into a coolly swinging piece. And “First Steps” moves like a drunken would-be jam, with Nick Obando creating a mad babble on saxophone backed by Eli Wallace’s stuttering keys — but along the way, you’ll also encounter moments of soulful jazz chording and straightforward rhythm.

 
Not every piece has to groove. “The Tides” is a sinister simmer, crawling slowly with pulsing electric piano and abrasive, nearly subliminal tones on sax, propelled by whisper-fast drumming.

“Escape Velocity,” on the other end of the abstract spectrum, might be my favorite track: an all-out blowout, with Wallace and drummer Aaron Levin raining fire. Obando’s saxophone is bright and scribbly, building up to some passionate skronking to wake the dead.