In 2016, Gerald Cleaver and Larry Ochs ventured into a paleolithic cave in France and were inspired by the inscriptions, paintings, and other artifacts of early human habitation that they found. Among the other novelties and mysteries of the experience, they were drawn to the resonances: sounds reverberating in the cave; insulated quiet, but not silence; symbolic communication across millennia through artwork and shared spaces of interaction; intercultural and interpersonal connections that transcend locality and time. Because of its deep historic importance, that specific space was closed to recording. However, Ochs and Cleaver ventured to a more accessible cave nearby to record their impressions of the paleolithic presence they had encountered.
Conceptually, this album works extremely well. The music is what you have likely come to expect from these two seasoned musicians. It is not earth shattering, but it is powerful. And, in this case, there is much to be said for the setting. There is a little more reverberation and echo. The sounds are a little more mystical and, at times, they linger just a little longer than those produced in a studio. This comes at the expense of clarity and fidelity. As with many similar projects, the distinctive elements of the space are difficult to reproduce digitally. That said, I think it works in a narrative of which this album is just one small part. It, moreover, sets an appropriately cryptic and contemplative mood (the cave was not just remote and quiet, but pitch black) and, as a spatial instrument itself, lends a unique sound and numinous air to this recording.
Ochs in in top form, running his gamut of tricks on tenor and soprano. Cleaver, as always, plays exceptionally and, in his use of non-standard percussion, is more exploratory than I have heard him recently. There are, of course, tracks that groove like the free-blowing "Deeper" and "Down" and the disturbingly restive "Into the Air." Others are more "shamanistic" (as per the liner notes) and entrancing. These include the spacious and mystical "First Steps," "Ringing it In," and "Rooted in Clay," all of which involve sparse, patient saxophone over a tapestry of clanks, bells, and other percussive rummaging that point to some sort of spiritual invocation. The final track, "Light from the Shadows," lies somewhere between these categories, evoking an ascension, or a return to consciousness and the profane lifeworld after an exhausting but cleansing descent into sacred ritual.
Coming to this blindly, I may have been less impressed by the recording quality and less attuned to the nuances of the music. That said, concepts are an important part of performance. Tracks can be threads or chapters of greater narrative, rather than simply complete and discrete statements in themselves. In this case, these elements, external to the sound but so crucial to the music, make this album make sense. In the end, this is a solid, well-rounded, and provocative effort that can hold its own among the best of Ochs' and Cleaver's catalogues.
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