Finnish pianist Frank Carlberg ties a lot of different aspects of his career together on his stunning new quintet recording, The American Dream. No stranger to creating challenging yet sympathetic musical settings for modern poetry, The American Dream is somewhat unusual in Carlberg's oeuvre in that he focuses exclusively on the work of one poet, the great Robert Creeley. A natural for adaptation into modern jazz settings, Creeley's poetry has also been set to music by bassist Steve Swallow (Home on ECM) and saxophonist Steve Lacy ("Futurities" on Hat Art). Carlberg's music is quite a bit different from Swallow's or Lacy's, however, emphasizing the more high energy aspects of jazz improvisation in rather complex compositional structures. Though it's an all-acoustic set with a fairly typical jazz instrumentation, Carlberg utilizes a wide range of musical influences - including rock, fusion and avant-classical motifs - as compositional jumping-off points.
Central to the success of any poetry/music recording is the vocalist involved. Creeley's stark, almost conversational pieces require an offhand, understated approach - one exemplified by Sheila Jordan on Steve Swallow's Home. Here, Creeley's words are sung by Christine Correa, a frequent duet partner of Carlberg's who has also worked extensively with Carlberg's mentor, Ran Blake. Correa's sound is big, powerful, and theatrical - perfect for Carlberg's restlessly energetic music, but not the sort of voice that I'd instinctively choose to convey the intimacy that Creeley's words demand. To Correa's credit, she really makes her style work on "The American Dream." Her striking, wordless ululation at the start of the first track, 'We Get Crazy,' is as memorable as it is bold. I especially enjoyed the way she varies her attack and phrasing to give form to different repetitions of Creeley's brief, Zen-like verse. Accompanying Carlberg and Correa are drummer Michael Sarin and bassist John Hebert, Carlberg's rhythm section of choice for over a decade. Hebert and Sarin have worked together quite a bit in a variety of musical contexts, and their particularly telepathic relationship works to great advantage here. Another of Carlberg's long-time musical associates, tenor saxophonist Chris Cheek, plays the warm, mellow straight-man to the mercurial Carlberg and the emotive Correa.
As a pianist, Carlberg is nothing short of masterful. His idiosyncratic, highly personal style shows the influence of pianists such as Ran Blake and Paul Bley. In fact, Carlberg studied under Blake at the New England Conservatory, where he is now a teacher, himself. Though Carlberg's style has developed into something purely his own, Blake's influence is still palpable on "The American Dream," particularly on slower, spacious, ballad-like pieces such as 'Loop,' 'If Ever There Is,' and 'Echoes II' where he uses unexpected harmonies, unusual dynamics, and odd silences to create fevered musical dreamscapes that complement Creeley's laconic, somewhat obtuse poetry. Like Blake, Carlberg has an affinity for gospel-like chordal constructs which come to the fore on the title track and on 'Sentences' which sounds a bit like a lost Keith Jarrett piece from the late 60s. Yet, Carlberg's playing throughout The American Dream is quite a bit more aggressive than Blake's or Bley's. He has an infectious nervous energy that spills over into his bandmates' playing - particularly that of Correa and Sarin, who turns in one of his best recorded performances ever on this disc. Carlberg is also quite fond of ostinatos and proto-minimalistic repetitive devices - he uses these to generate additional energy and focus behind his own solo in 'We Get Crazy,' and elsewhere on this marvelous disc. All of these elements come together on the next-to-last track 'Be At That' - a composition with manifold rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic complexities that flows and swings like the best 21st Century jazz should. I was completely floored by the intertwined dual improvisations of Carlberg and saxophonist Chris Cheek that weaved in and out of Sarin's fractured jumble of rhythm.
The American Dream is one of those rare recordings that challenges as much as it entertains. Carlberg and Correa really nail the feeling and intent behind Creeley's verse, though not in quite the manner that I had initially expected. Less surprisingly, Carlberg, Correa, Hebert, Cheek, and Sarin turn in some amazing individual and ensemble performances - some of the playing here just left me shaking my head in pleased disbelief. Highly recommended.