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Inner Constellation, Volume 1 by Bruce Eisenbeil Sextet

It's hard to believe that more than ten years have passed since guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil burst on on to the avant-jazz scene with two remarkable recordings released almost back-to-back by the wonderful CIMP label. At first glance, one thing that sets Eisenbeil apart from most avant-garde jazz guitarists is his choice of instrument; he prefers the Fender Stratocaster - a more typical choice for the aspiring bluesman or rocker - and plays it with a chunky, bass-heavy tone. However, Eisenbeil's latest - and possibly greatest - recording, Inner Constellation, proves that there's much, much more going on in this man's music than a slightly quirky choice of instruments.

The title track is a continuous 47 minute-long suite, recorded live without edits. It is broken up into twenty-seven relatively brief episodes purely - as Eisenbeil makes plain in a brief note - "for the listener's convenience." Given the music's coherence and tightly conceived array of interrelated themes, I am inclined to agree. Starting out with a rather brief taste of Eisenbeil's visceral, slashing Strat, the bass and drums introduce a strutting, sinewy walking rhythm to set the scene for the first of Eisenbeil's many laconic but highly appealing themes. Jane Cook's violin is the perfect foil for Eisenbeil's guitar, and she stands out in sharp contrast from her front-line partners, trumpeter Nate Wooley and alto saxophonist Aaron Ali Shaikh. She makes no attempt to hide her finely honed classical vibrato, and her warm, woody tone is a pleasure to hear. A fearless and aggressive improvisor, her scintillating head-to-head exchange with Eisenbeil on 'Clinging Fire' is one of the CD's major highlights. Wooley, fast becoming a major force on the New York avant-jazz scene, is a remarkably assured and ceaselessly interesting trumpeter. His beautifully paced solo on 'Mask In Profile' refers to Miles and Bill Dixon without slavish imitation; like Davis and Dixon, Wooley is all about the art of the sly understatement. Saxophonist Shaikh - a new name to me - is no slouch, either. His solo on 'Dream Breath' takes the band out into their most abstract collective playing of the entire CD.

Drummer Nasheet Waits and bassist Tom Abbs provide waves and and currents of roiling, ever-shifting rhythms. Abbs contributes a bold, scrambling solo on 'Wormhole Theif.' Waits - one of the finest drummers in jazz today - simply amazes me with his taste, technique and versatility. Both men show conclusively that avant-garde jazz swings as hard as the more familiar, more accepted forms.

Throughout all of this, Eisenbeil weaves artfully in and out of the numerous compositional elements - neither part of the background nor the undisputed front-man for the group. His role constantly shifts. At times, it seems he is comping, providing thick knotty supporting harmonies to underpin the delicate counterpoint of the horns and violin. Elsewhere, he spars with the rhythm section - almost willing them into new areas, and away from already-established grooves. Eisenbeil (along with Cook and Shaikh) performed in a 40-piece ensemble led by Cecil Taylor, and this experience has palpably influenced his playing. However, the music on "Inner Constellation" seems to come from somewhere else - at times it is meditative and spacy, elsewhere restless and searching, always brimming with fresh ideas and deep modern jazz grooves.

The three trio pieces that wrap up Inner Constellation seem a bit like an afterthought, though they provide both a bit of contrast to the rest of the CD, and an interesting comparison to Eisenbeil's earlier trio recordings. 'Rain In The Face' opens with koto-like acoustic guitar and develops quickly into a heated dialogue with the acoustic bass. The trio really gels on 'Receding Storm,' a dark, melancholy, somewhat mysterious piece fueled by Waits' insistent, malleted drums, and the eerie swirl of Eisenbeil's hollow-body electric.

Inner Constellation is already one of my favorite CDs of this still-young year. Anyone interested in avant-garde jazz needs to track this one down!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bruce Eisenbeil Sextet
  • CD Title: Inner Constellation, Volume 1
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2007
  • Record Label: Nemu Records
  • Tracks: Inner Constellation (1-27), Rain In The Face, Cues To The Vagabond, Receding Storm
  • Musicians: Bruce Eisenbeil (guitars), Jane Cook (violin), Nate Wooley (trumpet), Aaron Ali Shaikh (alto saxophone), Tom Abbs (acoustic bass), Nasheet Waits (drums)
  • Rating: Five Stars
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