Tall Poppies TP211
Reviewed by Joseph Cummins, September 1st, 2015
Across the Top is a convincing synthesis of European art music influences and jazz-informed improvisation. Paul Cutlan, one of Sydney’s leading improvising saxophonists, provides compositions that he performs with great sensitivity alongside bassist Brett Hirst and string quartet The NOISE – Veronique Serret and Lisa Pallandi on violin, James Eccles on viola, Ollie Miller on cello.
This recording features four distinct pieces, the jewel in the crown being the Across the Top Suite, itself comprised of three movements –‘Gibb River Road’, ‘Lost Souls’ and ‘Reconcile’. The first two of these main sections are introduced by brief improvisations that take full advantage of the talents of the players. Cutlan says the music is ‘the result of my desire to bring together my love of many styles and influences, including Bartok, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Britten, Balkan folk music, and the freedom and spontaneity of improvisation.’ The inspiration and title for the suite was a tour with world music band MARA! through Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.
The European modernist influences are very clear, although Cutlan’s performance on the bass clarinet recalls some of the intrigue of Benny Maupin’s work with Miles Davis on the Bitches Brew. That evocation aside, this album is defined by its motivic restlessness and the centrality of the string quartet. The six players unite to create a unique and balanced ensemble sound, although I must admit to wishing for more percussion. Perhaps a dexterously played ride cymbal might have wrested the overall character of this recording back towards the improvisatory and jazz side of the musical equation. For the most part Cutlan and Hirst steer their improvisations away from the blues side of jazz, although it does momentarily shine through towards the end of Cutlan’s solo on ‘Lost Souls’. Hirst does occasionally take up rhythmically driving ostinati, but for the most part forward momentum is produced by harmony, subtle changes in ensemble texture, and angular melodies.
In partnership with the geographical context of this suite, the harmonic language used by Cutlan also has resonances with Peter Sculthorpe’s Top End compositions – Sun Music, Kakadu etc. While programmatic perspectives seem to strongly frame this recording, Cutlan’s compositional vision seems to me to be very personal and unique. In other words, I feel like the discussion of the inspiration for the suite in the CD booklet, the images of the Top End, and titles of the tracks don’t really add much to the music. Cutlan’s compositions are strong and the playing is beautiful.
Special guest Mara Kiek adds the distinct percussive character of the tapan – a drum used in Balkan folk music – energising ‘Lost Souls’, the middle part of the suite. While the Bulgarian ‘Pajdushka’ rhythm used here is distinct from the temperament of the rest of the album, it does make a kind of sense in terms of the folk influences that also sit behind the work of Stravinsky and Bartok.
One of the highlights of the recording is how the strings slowly encroach into Hirst’s bass solo at the start of ‘Reconcile’, the final part of the suite. This movement also features Cutlan’s most engaging string quartet writing. Voices shift and intertwine: the balance of the ensemble resonance is always recalibrating.
Two stand-alone pieces follow the suite. The Dawning Dark is a free improvisation. Its stuttering, scratching and twittering character refresh the palate following the intensity of the suite, and it is maybe the best ensemble playing on the recording. The album is drawn to a conclusion with Perhaps Next Time. Cutlan’s soprano saxophone playing is another highlight here, skipping in and out of the shadows thrown by the strings. Cutlan’s writing throughout Across the Top, like the rest of the album, creates considerable beauty and tension. This music is lustrous: the more one listens to it, the better it will get.