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The Thirteenth Assembly - Station Direct [Important Records - 2012]

The Thirteenth Assembly is an ensemble of New York virtuosos playing a sophisticated and expanded form of jazz that includes influence from a great many genres, as well as instruments atypical to jazz, such as the viola, which gives the whole their sound a somber Romanticism.  Their new album, "Station Direct" is their second album in 3+ years of existence, and it's a dense, ambitious piece of work.  It would seem they prefer quality over quantity.

The sheer class and polished technique of the musicians is immediately apparent, as is the enormous scope of their creativity, which renders each piece utterly different.  Rather than viciously push the limits of their instruments, however, as many of the classic free jazz masters did, they approach their music from a reserved, cerebral state of mind that has more in common with 20th century classical music, and draws the listener's attention to the ordering of the notes chosen.  This is certainly a learned or 'researched' sounding music.  Their study has given them perfect control of all aspects of sound.

The more I listen to the album, the more I notice every note in its perfect place, and still more than that, every series of a notes as a dramatic gesture within the whole of every song.  Yet they play these fully formed and perfected compositional thoughts with such spontaneous passion and fluidity it's as if they were improvisations.  When they do let loose and engage in free jazz style jamming, riffing atonally off one another in a frantic, pulseless barrage, it's usually at some powerful moment of climax, the much needed meltdown after a long buildup.

This group of musicians exercises intense restraint.  The entire middle section of "Coming Up", is nothing but sparse, extended polyrhythm from the drums as a plaintive trumpet stretches soft long tones into a meandering melody. Perhaps most beautiful of all, "Long Road", nearly 14 minutes, is largely devoid of meter or percussive sounds, imitating the cognitive emptiness that arises as a monotonous, lengthy journey plods on.  Echo effects are on the sounds of the instruments, allowing them to simulate with slight squeaks, scrapes and bleats sketch a sun kissed canyon, populated only by the birds.  Partway through the journey, the guitar kicks into an ambling ostinato with some real country twang, and it really reminds me of singing the same little tune to myself over and over while strolling down the trail.  It's a lot like some of Aaron Copland's sparser music.

The stream of consciousness (slide) guitar playing comes from a rougher blues idiom, freely engaging in string noise, abrupt muting, and warbly detuned jangling during the noisier sections.  The trumpet, on the other hand, has a rounded and even tone, much closer to the classical sound of the trumpet than to the raucous, unhinged sounds found often found in jazz.

Each song is so dense and detailed that I really can't sum it up with description, but I can name some of the distinctive qualities of the different tracks.  "Prosthetic Chorizo" is the cheeky avant garde side of this group's musical continuum, opting for hazy, seasick dissonance over uncertain drum patterns rather than anything noticeably melodic.  Later in the track, a wandering chord progression is established and the trumpet maintains a sickly, drugged sounding lead which somehow lacks motivation.  At any moment, it seems the track could simply end, as there's no certainty to the direction of the sound, and yet its all strangely intentional.

"Coming Up", which I mentioned earlier, is quite the empowering piece.  It starts with an anticipatory drum solo, immersing us in swells and cascades of tom fills and cymbal work, jumping directly into a straight ahead 3/4 rhythm around the 2 minute mark.  The main melody, reinterpreted throughout the piece, is first carried by trumpet and strings in unison, and it feels like the hope that accompanies a new dawn. 

The Thirteenth Assembly begin to break into heavy rock territory with the last two tracks, though they never turn on the distortion.  "Station" enters with dissonant King Crimson-esque guitar percolations, winding up and down the chromatic scale.  "Direct" has some wistful power chord riffs in 4, straight out of the 90's alternative songbook, making for a sympathetic and relatable closer.

Though it's certainly an exercise for the mind, if it's your cup of tea "Station Direct" is something of a masterpiece.  Unless you're one of those who craves ferocity in your music, most serious fans of music should be able to enjoy this deep and diverse album, which balances consonance and dissonance in a uniquely impressive manner.  Recommended to any fan of classical, jazz or otherwise dense and brainy music.

Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5Rating: 5 out of 5

Josh Landry
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