Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Michael Moss and the Accidental Orchestra's Helix
This is one potent blast of free jazz from multi-instrumentalist and composer Michael Moss, made possible by a 22-piece ensemble. The size of the ensemble is important, obviously, since this is a powerful statement that requires significant impact. Moss, originally from Wisconsin and now a 50-year veteran of the NYC free jazz scene, addresses both the cosmic and the everyday in two extended suites. The first one, "The Old One," is named for Einstein's nickname for God and attempts to serve as "an initiation into sacred ground." The second piece, "See Sharp or Be Flat," was inspired by Moss' convalescence after suffering a fracture when he tripped over a curb. He even named his new ensemble after the incident.
I've discussed free jazz before, and how I believe the secret to unraveling its mysteries is to find structure amid the chaos and build from there. I do admit that Helix is a tougher nut to crack since the overall size and the resulting sound of the orchestra are so imposing. Right out of the gate the listener is met with a wall of sound, and it takes persistence and patience to find those aforementioned structures. They do exist, however, in the form of musical touchstones such as Bach's Mass in B minor in the first suite, and James Brown ("I Feel Good"), the Beatles ("Norwegian Wood") and the Modern Jazz Quartet's Bags Groove.
It sounds lighthearted, but it's anything but. Moss refers to himself as "the farthest-out cat," which is notable since he's spent so much of his life hanging out with other cats such as McCoy Tyner, Sam Rivers, Annette Peacock and Elvin Jones. Absorbing Helix is a daunting task, especially when you consider that most mainstream jazz fans might night make it through to the end even once. You have to be predisposed to jumping into the primordial swamp where free jazz thrives and let it wash over you. If you're adventurous, you'll pop up somewhere down the river, braver and better informed.
One additional observation--I see a few familiar names among the Accidental Orchestra such as violist Stephanie Griffin, flute and tenor sax player Elliot Levin, bass clarinet player Michael Lytle and, most notably, violinist Jason Kao Hwang. I reviewed Hwang's Sing House back in June, which turned out to be another challenging free jazz release that inspired me to comment that "the point may be to find hidden treasures within the cacophony--not moments of recognition or reference, but a way to expand beliefs about what music is and isn't." The same applies here, but there is satisfaction in finding today's contemporary free jazz performers supporting each other and helping them realize their unique visions.