Bassist Anne Mette Iversen (that’s her in the black, above) has been leading a quartet featuring saxophonist John Ellis, pianist Danny Grissett and drummer Otis Brown III for nearly a decade, through three albums. Her latest release, So Many Roads, expands the group to a nine-piece ensemble called Double Life, which includes trombonist Peter Dahlgren and the 4Corners string quartet (violinists Tine Rudloff and Sarah McClelland, violist Anne Soren, and cellist Mats Larsson). This isn’t the first encounter between Iversen’s quartet and 4Corners; the two groups previously collaborated on one disc of 2008’s double CD Best of the West/Many Places. But So Many Roads is a unique, large-scale work that stretches the boundaries of jazz and modern composition until they meet in an entirely new space somewhere in the middle.
The album is a single, 36-minute piece broken—on CD anyway—into six tracks: a prologue, four chapters, and an epilogue. (In digital format, it’s a single long track, as can be seen below.) It begins with a solo bass intro from Iversen that has a thick, organic feel; her instrument booms and throbs in a way that almost recalls the rubber-band sound of mainstream jazz in the 1970s and early 1980s, but the close miking captures her fingers zipping and skidding across the strings, colliding with the wood to produce the sounds. The bass may be the most physical instrument in jazz, even more than the drums, and Iversen’s opening solo dwells securely within the realm of players like Jimmy Garrison and Charles Mingus, who seemed at times to be wrestling the instrument into submission.
“Chapter One” is introduced by a romantic, billowing fanfare from the string players, joined by Grissett’s piano and Brown’s drums, though the latter man limits himself to cymbals at first. Ellis offers a gentle soprano saxophone melody, as if lulling the listener into a meditative state. But things change after only a minute; the string quartet becomes staccato and jarring, and the soprano begins to chirp in a more agitated manner. When the piano, drums, and Dahlgren’s mellow trombone enter at the 2:30 mark, though, things shift yet again, this time to a swinging jazz quartet, eventually joined by violins. If the juxtapositions were a little more disruptive, the changes from passage to passage a little speedier and less clearly announced, this could be one of John Zorn‘s collage pieces.
“Chapter Two” begins with unaccompanied bass again, then turns into a piano trio, Brown dancing all over the kit as Grissett plays a suspenseful solo that begins with almost Vince Guaraldi-ish melody, before getting somehow frantic and lyrical at once. When Ellis, now on tenor, and Dahlgren enter, blowing polyphonically past each other, and then take solos in turn, it’s superb and artful post-bop; both horn players are capable of fleet, bluesy extrapolation atop the pianist’s expertly placed chords. Behind the jazz group, the string quartet offers occasional eruptions like the stabs intended to heighten tension on a movie soundtrack. This is the longest section of the piece, at nearly 11 minutes, and it leads seamlessly into “Chapter Three,” which is much more atmospheric and romantic, the melody mostly in the hands of the violinists as Dahlgren blows low notes beneath.
When the strings take the lead on “Chapter Four,” with Iversen and Brown swinging hard beneath them, the feel is like Gypsy jazz, except suddenly the rhythm disappears like the floor dropping away beneath them and they’re left sawing in the air. Then the horns come back, murmuring sax and humming trombone, and we’re once again in that weird in-between zone that this music creates and then occupies, jazz and strings zipping and zooming around each other until the listener’s head starts to spin, thrilled and overstimulated like a child six hours into a day at the carnival. Finally, the “Epilogue” arrives, and it’s beautiful, piano and strings blooming like a time-lapse rose.
This is a great piece of music, whether you hear it in sections or all at once. It’s not a journey, exactly, because it doesn’t really feel like it proceeds from point A to point Z. Instead, it’s like two groups performing simultaneously, and periodically bleeding into each other’s worlds in fascinating and thrilling ways.
Stream the whole thing below, and buy it if you like what you hear: