Sunday, December 16, 2012

Forms of Things Unknown

Dave Morgan.  Forms of Things Unknown.
Being Time Records, 2012.  Dave Morgan:

Dave Morgan has been kicking around Northeast Ohio since the mid-1990s.  By “kicking around,” I mean teaching at Youngstown State University, Oberlin Conservatory, and Cuyahoga Community College, working with the Cleveland and Paul Ferguson Jazz Orchestras, playing bass, and composing.  His previous recording under his own name, The Way of the Sly Man, was a well-received concert-length jazz piece based on the works of G. I. Gurdjieff, a mystic, so I wasn’t sure what I would find in this album.  

Forms of Things Unknown is a twelve-movement work for a percussion ensemble of fifteen that incorporates jazz, world musics, and elements of ambience and minimalism.  It is less traditionally jazz-like than his last album, partly due to the mix of styles, but also because of the instrumentation, with vibes, marimba, and xylophone dominating the melodies in many cases, and nary a saxophone or trumpet to be heard.  The performers are members of the Youngstown Percussion Collective, a talented 16-member student group that seems entirely up to the task at hand.

The titles of the movements do little to prepare the listener, except for the opener, “Airy Nothing,” which provides a short, floating, introduction, and the last track, “The Only Dance,” which is exactly that--a track that is danceable, in Brazilian style.  In all the movements, various tempos and rhythms are explored, with each movement standing alone as a separate piece, although some common themes can be heard here and there.  Some of these are reminiscent of Middle Eastern, West African, Southeast Asian, or Latin rhythms, while others have the atmosphere of contemporary classical music.  All are quite different, and for me, it is difficult to see the common threads beyond instrumentation, so I must be missing something here.  None are particularly wild and dissonant, and most are quite enjoyable in their explorations of what a percussion ensemble can do.  

There are 1.5 exceptions.  “Kundalini” is played with guiros, notched gourds that make a rasping sound.  They are great when used in a larger ensemble (usually in Latin American music).  To me, this just sounds like five minutes of tool- sharpening, and the various rhythms produced do not hold my interest.  The following track, “Unknown Unknowns,” opens with a distracting spoken word segment consisting of people reciting a series of identical overlapping statements, that then moves to a rhythmically complex segment that I liked very much.  Why they chose the opener is unknown.

Quibbles aside, Forms of Things Unknown is an intriguing and highly listenable album, sure to be enjoyed by those who like their percussion in large doses.  The project seems to have been largely funded through Kickstarter, the crowdsourcing funding platform.  

Personnel:  Youngstown Percussion Collective (
Tracks:  Airy Nothing, Do I Dare Eat a Peach?, Desiring, Ritual, Better Angels, The Flow, Bindu to Ogis, Kundalini, Unknown Unknowns, Entrainment, Amulet, The Only Dance.

Jeff Wanser

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