Though “Mystic Maze” explores the particularly nasty, sarcastic and satirical things that were said about Bela Bartok's music during the early 20th Century, this example is easily extended to the sorts of things written about any sort of revolutionary music in its time. You don't have to dig deep to find articles denouncing the likes of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Albert Ayler, and Ornette Coleman in the most extreme ways. Dahlgren experienced these sorts of visceral reactions to music first-hand while performing with Braxton, and his fascination with the topic led to the creation of “Mystic Maze.”
“Mystic Maze” is actually a multi-media experience that seamlessly combines spoken word pieces taken from Nicholas Slonimsky's “Lexicon of Musical Invective” (a compilation of critiques written in the early 20th Century that vilified the work of Bartok and other contemporary composers) and Dahlgren's own multi-faceted compositions. Dahlgren performs the spoken word pieces in a super-straight, perfectly-enunciated deadpan manner that brings Ken Nordine to mind. Dahlgren's intent is to fire these negative salvos back to their point of origin by combining the words with ever more radical music. The group also interprets one Bartok piece. While the great Hungarian composer's presence looms large over these proceedings, jazz is unquestionably the primary language spoken here. Dahlgren's approach to his own written materials is quite interesting – the players learn the pieces, and then spontaneously choose which parts they want to play during a given performance.
The great thing about “Mystic Maze” is that, even if you didn't bother to read the liner notes, the music is unique, extremely well-played, and quite engaging without ever being too weird for its own good. If you enjoy spoken word performances, this CD is definitely a must-hear experience, because there's very little else out there quite like it. Some of the pieces even sound a little like some of Frank Zappa's more experimental work. While Dahlgren's melodies are both gorgeous and thorny - jagged, off-center, harmonically-demanding lines that meander into unexpected places – the rhythm section swings hard throughout. Pianist Antonis Anissegos chimes in occasionally ('Painless Dentisty No. 2') with a Wurlitzer electric piano that gives the music a late 60s Miles-ish edge. Other passages have lengthy intertwining contrapuntal lines whose slightly off-kilter rhythms suggest the work of Dahlgran's former employer, Anthony Braxton. Elsewhere, a pensive ECM-like Euro-jazz vibe pervades. Drummer Eric Schaefer tends towards the busy end of the spectrum, though his choices are always appropriate. He gives the music considerable forward momentum and ignites particularly passionate soloing from both saxophonists. The front line reed tandem of alto saxophonist Christian Weidner and long-time Dahlgren associate, multi-reedist Gebhard Ullmann, is particularly sympathetic. Ullmann's bass clarinet, in particular, provides a fascinating counterpoint to Weidner's combustible, Dolphy-esque alto.