Brooklyn Rider: The Brooklyn Rider Almanac
Mercury Classics

On both of its previous albums, Brooklyn Rider—violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicola Cords, and cellist Eric Jacobsen—coupled new compositions with material from the classical repertoire: Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 on 2012's Seven Steps and Bartók's second string quartet on 2013's A Walking Fire. Boldly departing from that strategy, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac sees the group changing things up by featuring specially commissioned work from a diverse array of composers. The result is an adventurous, seventy-eight-minute collection that draws upon the talents of figures who largely operate outside of the classical world, people such as Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche, Deerhof member Greg Saunier, and jazz pianist Vijay Iyer. The thirteen-track recording also features compositions by the quartet's own Jacobsen and is supplemented by three digital-only tracks by Tin Hat's Carla Kihlstedt, The Clogs' Padma Newsome, and jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

Brooklyn Rider didn't just gather material from the artists involved, however, but commissioned each composer to select an artistic figure from the last fifty years who personally influenced him/her and incorporate the spirit of that influence into the work produced. And so we have singer-songwriter/violinist Christina Courtin drawing inspiration from Igor Stravinsky, jazz saxophonist Daniel Cords composing his piece with ‘80s pop artist Keith Haring in mind, American singer-songwriter Aoife O'Donovan inspired by William Faulkner, and so on—arresting combinations in all instances.

The quartet attacks the material, which understandably extends into stylistic areas other than classical, with its customary vigour. With so many of the pieces either composed by jazz artists or drawing on related figures for inspiration, it's no surprise that much of the material is rhythmically charged, something for which Brooklyn Rider is ideally suited. Albanian cellist Rubin Kodheli's “Necessary Henry!” thus swings with impassioned fervour, much as Henry Threadgill's own compositions do. The Almanac's funkiest cut is Iyer's “Dig the Say,” which grooves with a rhythmic drive one would expect from a piece inspired by James Brown, and “Morris Dance” by Ethan Iverson (pianist in The Bad Plus) naturally has its share of fleet-footed dance moments, given the title's reference to American choreographer Mark Morris.

Not all of the pieces are uptempo, however. American multi-instrumentalist Dana Lyn draws out the quartet's ruminative side during the first half of “Maintenance Music,” her homage to American artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, before the intensity escalates in the second. Australian musician Padma Newsome, taking inspiration from Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, provides Brooklyn Rider with five exquisite minutes of plaintive folk material in “Simpson's Gap,” while a rustic folk character also infuses Aoife O'Donovan's lyrical “Show Me,” something encouraged perhaps by the settings of the American South that appear in Faulkner's writing. One also wonders whether Courtin had Stravinsky's neo-classical period in her thoughts when she composed “Tralala,” given its courtly elegance.

A break from the purely instrumental proceedings occurs when Shara Worden's multi-tracked vocalizing appears alongside hand-claps and pizzicato playing within Jacobsen's “Exit” (from the suite Chalk and Soot). Inspired by American singer David Byrne, the piece is the album's most stirring, melodically speaking, and is further elevated by Worden's hypnotic delivery. Inspiration is undoubtedly the project's theme, and not only in the core idea of artists composing material with inspirational figures in mind. The very concept of The Brooklyn Rider Almanac is in itself an inspired idea, and so too is the quartet's playing, which is as always at a consistently high level.

November 2014