Bobby Previte: Terminals
Cantaloupe Music

Drummer, composer, and bandleader Bobby Previte has amassed a rather remarkable discography since the release of his excellent debut album Pushing The Envelope in 1987 on Gramavision. A string of impressive full-lengths followed, among them Claude's Last Morning and Empty Suits, and during that time Previte established himself in the NY-based Downtown Music scene as one of the go-to drummers for John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, Tim Berne, and Elliott Sharp, while also branching out with the related band project Weather Clear, Fast Track.

It's wonderful to discover that, all these years later, Previte's artistically thriving, with his latest recording Terminals providing compelling evidence in support of the claim. The first detail worth noting is that the seventy-eight-minute recording does not feature Previte leading a small group of musicians from the drum chair; instead, Terminals' five long-form settings find So Percussion (Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting) accompanying a different soloist on each track: pianist/organist John Medeski (Medeski, Martin & Wood), guitarist Nels Cline (Wilco), harpist Zeena Parkins, alto saxist Greg Osby, and Previte himself on trap drums.

Unlike many a recording where the dividing line between composition and improvisation is clearly drawn, Terminals blurs the line, making it difficult to determine where composition ends and improvisation begins. That's something easier to gauge as far as the soloists are concerned, as the role they play on the recording is primarily that of improvisor, something especially evident in those passages where cadenzas occur. The material played by So Percussion, on the other hand, is more clearly composed, even if their rendering of it makes it seem like spontaneous composition. One reason why the material assumes that kind of character is that Previte eschews repeating melodic passages within a given piece but instead presents within it a constant and unpredictable flow of ideas.

With Parkins supplementing the familiar plucks and strums of the traditional harp with the electric guitar-like roar of the electric harp, the musicians execute the opening piece with patient circumspection, collectively committed to having the music unfold in natural manner as it wends its way through alternately quiet and aggressive passages. Bowed vibes and bell strikes lend an ethereal quality to “Terminal 2,” which is otherwise highlighted by Osby's superb sax playing and in particular the unaccompanied solo he takes ten minutes into the piece. At album's end, the Medeski-featured “Terminal 5” contrasts elegant piano-centered explorations with an organ-driven jazz-blues episode.

Not surprisingly, the most fiery of the settings is “Terminal 3,” wherein Cline scatters blistering lines and molten distortion across So Percussion's high-energy rambunction. A good amount of heat is likewise generated by the drum solo that erupts halfway through Previte's own setpiece “Terminal 4.” The range of percussion sounds—sleigh bells, vibraphone, timpani, cymbals, bongos, steel drums, triangle, shakers, et al.—presented on Terminals is itself a source of wonderment, and one can only begin to imagine the magnitude of resources deployed by So Percussion on the album. Stylistically, its material encompasses an equally wide range, with gamelan, jazz, rock, funk, and blues referenced at different times.

Terminals might best be described as five concertos for percussion ensemble and soloists, whose intricate structures were inspired by schematic-like terminal maps that caught Previte's attention in airports around the world. Or, in the composer's own words, the project documents what happens when “the precise, unflappable, ‘classical' percussion ensemble meets the wild, uncontrollable, ‘jazz' master improviser”—two worlds that happily co-exist in Previte's mind and can now do so in the listener's, too.

November 2014