Waclaw Zimpel: Lines
Instant Classic

Waclaw Zimpel's one-man take on classical minimalism is something special, especially when the album's six polyphonic compositions place clarinets, flutes, and saxophones at the forefront. It's also impressive for the simple reason that, though he's recorded with the Waclaw Zimpel Quartet and Waclaw Zimpel To Tu Orchestra, Lines is his first solo album. Though there are fundamental differences between the album's pieces, their common thread is the American minimalism of La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, and Steve Reich; the presence of organ on a number of tracks also lends the material a sonic character redolent of the movement's early days. Lines, however, is anything but a one-dimensional project: Zimpel's familiarity with other traditions, among them Indian and African, finds its way into the material, though never so overtly that the strands can be isolated from each other.

It's organ, not clarinet, that inaugurates “Alupa-Pappa” with cyclical patterns that make the minimalism connection (African too) apparent from the outset. It doesn't take long, however, for Zimpel's imaginative vision as a composer to make its presence felt: deep bass tones murmur alongside the burbling keyboards to give the material ballast and ground it with a firm foundation, and in another surprising move, he builds tension by having the woodwinds (a braying saxophone the most prominent voice) appear seven minutes into the ten-minute piece. Immediately thereafter, “Breathing Etude” distances itself from the opener in opting for a hushed meditative drone realized using multi-layered, micro-tonal clarinet pitches.

Elsewhere, in its canon-styled formality and polyphonic design, the brief “Deo Gratias” extends back centuries beyond minimalism to the Renaissance, whereas the title track encompasses two realms: on the one hand, the repeating organ patterns obviously tie it to minimalism, but on the other the free-flowing woodwinds—the wailing sax flourishes, in particular—layered overtop allude to less strictly notated forms.

In its very title, “Five Clarinets” aligns itself to the minimalism tradition, and in multi-tracking the titular clarinets in the way that it does it draws a clear connecting line to Reich's Counterpoint pieces, individually scored for flute, electric guitar, and cello. There is a key difference, however: much like the other five pieces on the album, Zimpel's piece feels less wholly notated and looser, more jazz-like, and a jazz feel clearly emerges in the swing of the playing; that it feels so convincingly like five clarinetists responding to one another is a credit to Zimpel's facility as a multi-tracker.

The album is, by his own admission, mostly written as opposed to improvised, yet the material's live feel and sense of spontaneity never gets lost along the way. Obviously there's much to recommend Lines, but mention must be made of its concision. At forty minutes, the album's length feels perfect; it's long enough that a substantive portrait is presented yet not so long that Zimpel starts to feel as if he's repeating himself.

March 2016