Thursday, October 13, 2016

Sonus Inenarrabilis/Nine Live Plays the Music of John Clark on CD

It was a tad difficult to wrap my head around this CD--not music-wise, of course, but title-wise. Is Sonus Inenarrabilis the name of the group, or is Nine Live? Who is the guy holding the French horn on the cover? Is that John Clark? Is it okay to name your record label Mulatta in the PC age? It even took a bit to make sense of "Nine Live"--is there supposed to be an s at the end? Oh wait, maybe that's the name of the ensemble, nine people playing live. Ah. It's starting to become clear. The name of the album is, indeed Sonus Inenarrabilis, performed by a jazz nonet and featuring music written by the horn player on the cover, John Clark.

I hate to seem like I'm fussy about all this. It's just that in judging this CD by its cover (and title), I made some assumptions such as this is a very small label with very limited production budget putting out the kind of CD Nine Lives sells at the back of the club after a gig. I'm not biased against such releases--everyone has to start somewhere, and I've been guilty more than once of buying someone's CD after a live show. It's just that my expectations are usually somewhat low in these instances--the production values are probably minimalist at best considering studio time can be quite expensive, especially when nine musicians are involved.

After a perfunctory first listen, I realized just how wrong I was. Have you ever seen a hi-fi component that comes in a rather plain black box that turns out to be a great performer, and the manufacturer then comments that "we put all the good stuff on the inside, where it counts"? On Sonus Inenarrabilis, all the good stuff is definitely on the inside. First, the choice of instrumentation is fairly novel for a jazz nonet--clarinet, violin, horn, 7-string electric bass, cello, viola, drums, bassoon and keyboards, all held together by conductor Thomas Carlo Bo. That allows Nine Lives to slide around in the space between genres, moving surreptitiously through jazz, blues, fusion and funk as a well-tuned small orchestra--imagine a Lalo Schifrin score from the mid '70s and you'll understand the vibe. In other words, this is not a recording of a horn player sitting in a chair, playing old Scarlatti pieces.

That's not to say this music is odd or exotic in the same ways as Black Paintings, which I reviewed last week. It's not hard to imagine this music as the soundtrack from a '70s movie, a pretty good one at that, with a slightly dated sound that's completely on purpose. (This idea popped in my mind because I watched The French Connection the other night and I've always had very mixed feelings about the harsh, atonal jazz score until now--I love it.) I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that the clean, compact delivery of John Clark's compositions is totally intentional, evoking that same sense of perhaps a B-movie score that outclasses the B-movie it's in.

The kicker is this: the sound quality of this modest little CD is absolutely superb. There's a forward and immediate presentation here that excels at separating each performance so that you can follow individual performers with ease without losing sight of the whole. Dan Cooper, who co-founded the ensemble with John Clark, provides such a solid foundation with his 7-string bass guitar--it's always there, offering full, warm and rich support of his fellow performers. Drummer Cesare Papetti, on the other end of the frequency range, offers plenty of delicate shimmering highs with his splendid cymbal and hi-hat work. Everyone else in between is on the money--these are mostly NYC session performers who are the epitome of professionalism.

As far as Mulatta Records is concerned, it has a hell of a pedigree. Dave Soldier, who produced this album and is responsible for getting these nine performers in the studio at once, co-founded the label in 2000 with Nigerian record producer Ayo Osinibi. Soldier has had a very interesting career as a composer and performer on his own. Even the motto of Mulatta is "purveyors of the unique and bizarre," which seems at odds with the very low-profile cover. But Sonus Inenarrabilis makes much more sense when you just place the CD in your player and forget about the rest.

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