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Chicago clarinetist James Falzone leads a sextet of reeds with Ken Vandermark, Ben Goldberg, Keefe Jackson, Ned Rothenberg, & Jason Stein in a set of 14 intelligent compositions joining minimalism, classical inferences and jazz with asymmetrical parts using both structure and freedom.

Renga Ensemble, The: Falzone / Vandermark / Jackson / Rothenberg / Stein / Goldberg
The Room Is

Renga Ensemble, The: Falzone / Vandermark / Jackson / Rothenberg / Stein / Goldberg: The Room Is (Allos Documents)

Label: Allos Documents    
Released in: USA    

"Enterprising Chicago-based clarinetist James Falzone and a core band of fellow improvisers signal a modern day avant-jazz summit, inspired by the leader's affinity for Renga, which is a Japanese poetic tradition where 2 or more poets work in parallel to produce a new work. Falzone yields dividends by enlisting an ensemble, featuring prominent trailblazers of the modern era's improvising circuit such as Ken Vandermark, Ben Goldberg, Ned Rothenberg and others of note. The performers' inner-workings are implanted within a holistic viewpoint, spanning stark minimalism, classical inferences and jazz with asymmetrical parts, structure and freedom. At times the musicians veer off into subgroups and explore numerous concepts via muscular unison choruses, playful breakouts, curvy dialogues and solemn inquisitions. "Until" is the album's lengthiest work, clocking in at 13-minutes. Here, the sextet stops, starts and generates an airy environ with rests in between choruses amid many contrasts, given the artists' varied selection of clarinets and saxophones. They delve into a surfeit of exploratory processes, shaped with contemplative and microtonal etudes and a primary theme engineered with a vertical trajectory. They mix it up with verbose exchanges while also converging and splitting themes into micro-fragments. Towards closeout , Jason Stein, Keefe Jackson and Vandermark engage in a whirling bass clarinet cadenza as the band eventually goes all over the map with fiery exchanges. Thus, each piece poses its own set of circumstances and not solely centered on wild escapades or laborious journeys without an endpoint or zenith. There are quite a few moving parts as an irrefutable sense of excitement underscores the overall proceedings."-Glenn Astarita,

The Renga Ensemble was convened by clarinetist and composer James for a series of concerts and a recording in April, 2013 in Chicago. The ensemble was handpicked by Falzone, drawing together some of the most diverse and adventurous clarinet and saxophone players working in jazz and improvised music today.

The project is rooted in persona: how do diverse musical voices converge and find common ground, especially in a setting where composed and improvised elements coalesce? The intention in assembling such diverse players, most of whom had never played together before, was to allow space for each voice to be heard yet challenged and shaped by another, equally strong voice. The concerts in Chicago took place at The Chicago Cultural Center, The Hideout, and the Elastic Arts Foundation and received preview articles in The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, and Chicago Music.

James named the group Renga after a centuries-old form of collaborative Japanese poetry, where two or three poets blend their words into a single meditative work. James' compositions, written especially for this project, were conceived around a haiku by American poet Anita Virgil. The titles of many of the compositions make up her brazenly clear yet emotionally compelling poem:

   not seeing
     the room is white      until that red apple

"I was working as an understudy for Buster Smith, the alto player that Bird loved so much. Buster Smith was my director, and that's where I got most of my stamina for playing the saxophone. It was so frightening standing next to him, because it seemed like the sound was coming up through the ground, up through the bottom of the horn and out through the bell." -Prince Lasha in conversation with this writer in 2005, published in "Prince Lasha's Inside-Outside Story" on

The woodwind family is borne of the earth. Though saxophones and clarinets are machines designed to move air and project sound, they channel something much greater than mere breath. Connected to fingers, facial muscles, tongue, neck, arms, torsos, lungs and legs, reeds make a circuitous but definite path to the ground. In multiple, they create an undeniable sense of textural force and can signify as much propulsion as a rhythm section might. One thinks of the great woodwind sections of Ellington, Basie and Kenton, not to mention Sun Ra's Arkestra or Muhal Richard Abrams' Experimental Band. Prince Lasha, a flutist, saxophonist and clarinetist, was speaking above to the sound of Texas saxophonists like Booker Ervin, Ornette Coleman and Dewey Redman.

One might extrapolate that Texas sound out of Fort Worth's sawdust-floored black clubs onto Jimmy Giuffre, a multi-reedman and composer from Dallas who, while on the West Coast and working with Woody Herman's band, wrote one of the central pieces of saxophone ensemble literature, "Four Brothers." Knotty and nearly beholden to circular breathing, its tone rows give the reigns to three tenors and baritone and focus the ensemble directly on the front line and the rhythm and interplay of the reeds. Giuffre's work - which later encompassed free improvisation and a unique, "chamber"-like approach to ensemble orchestration - is one of many influences apparent in the music of Chicago clarinetist and composer James Falzone.

Falzone's pedigree in the Windy City creative music scene is similarly diverse, encompassing free music as well as exploring sound sources from Benny Goodman (KLANG: Other Doors, Allos Documents 006) to Arabic music (Allos Musica: Lamentations, Allos Documents 005). Employing quartets with vibes, bass and drums as his support, or oud and percussion, or in drummer Tim Daisy's chamber trio with cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, Falzone has often recorded in smallish and very focused ensembles that, while structurally complex, usually maintained a connection to drum-rhythm. Often Falzone was the only horn, thus putting his bracing tone and attack front and center. As fellow Chi-town reedman/composer Ken Vandermark put it in recent communication, "you can hear it in his facility with the horn, the lines have a nuance and evenness of tone throughout the instrument that is extremely difficult to create - each register on the clarinet almost has a separate personality. James can jump from its lowest note to the top within the same dynamic level."

Falzone's latest group is a major point of departure: Renga is a woodwind sextet and joins the Bb and Eb clarinetist with Vandermark (Bb and bass clarinet, baritone saxophone), Keefe Jackson (bass and contrabass clarinet, tenor saxophone), Jason Stein (bass clarinet), Ned Rothenberg (Bb clarinet and alto saxophone), and Ben Goldberg (Bb clarinet and contralto clarinet). Falzone notes "each of these musicians possess a very personal voice, a color, that is expressed through their horn. More than anything, I was interested in seeing how I could work with these voices, blending and contrasting but always creating space for each hue to remain itself." All of the fourteen pieces here are from Falzone's pen and draw from ancient collaborative haiku, or Renga. There are six "Rengas", each spotlighting a different player in the sextet and thus brightening the collaborative bond between individual performance and the work as a whole. In formal terms, each line or statement is expanded upon by a subsequent one, creatively overlapping. To extend the disc's connection to ancient verse, five of the disc's pieces take their title from a haiku by contemporary American poet Anita Virgil:

   not seeing
     the room is white      until that red apple

Going back to the "Four Brothers," improvised woodwind ensembles seem to have taken off with the emergence of free music. Though often thought of as "conservative," players like Giuffre liberated the artform, avoiding the tendency to hold onto a traditional rhythm section; interestingly, Giuffre recorded an LP of overdubbed tenor compositions for Atlantic called The Four Brothers Sound in 1958. Yet there's something Chicagoan about total reed music, perhaps with roots in the AACM and its focus on non-traditional combinations of instruments. For example, Anthony Braxton's 1974 piece (Op. 37) for sopranino, alto, tenor and baritone saxophone led to the formation of the World Saxophone Quartet with David Murray, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill and Hamiet Bluiett (New York, Fall, 1974, Arista 4032). Of course the reed ensemble wasn't just a Chicago thing - in California ROVA emerged at the tail end of the '70s, and Steve Lacy also had his Saxophone Special group - but it seems to have germinated there. In contemporary terms, Renga fits alongside Keefe Jackson's Likely So, a new reed septet including Chicago saxophonists Dave Rempis and Mars Williams along with the Polish reedman Wacław Zimpel and Marc Stucki, Peter A. Schmid and Thomas K.J. Meier from Switzerland. A freer and smaller unit exists in Sonore; lifted from the Chicago Tentet's horn section, the group consists of Vandermark, Peter Brötzmann, and Mats Gustafsson.

An all-reed ensemble requires a total sonic commitment that's quite set apart from other instrumental forms. As Jackson puts it, "this context is different from the usual in the sense that since the band is full of other reed players, while improvising you must start from a higher level - the basic 'saxophone' or 'clarinet' things have already been stated and stated and stated on every song, so you have to find another way to make the music count, every note, and also to take it somewhere. It makes you work harder." Falzone and Jackson have worked together since the clarinetist's return to Chicago, including compositional workshops and Jackson's Project Project orchestra (Just Like This, Delmark 580, 2008). But just as Renga's specific instrumental relationships make the music a challenge unlike any other, it's important to look at this workwithin the arc of James Falzone the composer. The rhythm writing, choppy and globular yet able to maintain a thin and bubbly quality, are distinctly Falzone-ian and one could imagine Keefe Jackson's tenor or Ken Vandermark's baritone occupying a role similar to vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz or bassist Jason Roebke in KLANG.

While seeing this outfit within the breadth of a composer's work helps to understand the way in which ideas feed one another and create a picture, it's important to note that Renga, like any improvised music ensemble, is a sum of its parts and musicians are chosen for their individual approaches. Falzone brought in three peers from the Chicago scene (Vandermark, Jackson, and Stein) and two players he had not worked with (Rothenberg and Goldberg, from New York and the Bay Area respectively) but was fascinated by. So each node in Falzone's Renga - or each line - was painstakingly applied from firsthand experience and genuine, personal curiosity. Renga was designed to challenge players in their sense of instrumental possibilities, and part of that challenge comes from exploring collaboration between distinct artistic practices. It is decidedly different music once a new personality enters the fray, regardless of their chosen axe. "Four Brothers" was written with Serge Chaloff, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims and Herbie Steward in mind, and would've sounded vastly different with Coleman Hawkins or Russell Procope.

Turning to the penultimate piece, "That Red Apple," it may be worth a relook at Jimmy Giuffre and how swing is distilled into pure sound and graceful movement. The clarinets display knotty swagger, Goldberg burrowing in for the first solo with an approach that's lush and grounded; gradually players peel off in pointillist duets and incisive motion. A fragment of trilling modernist fanfare emerges, orchestral elision with a set of growls and buttery pecks. In this music, Falzone embraces both textural interplay and arrangements that hold fast and remain roomy. Dusty footfalls sashay and wink in the direction of the past, though these six players remain steadfastly present. Taut riffage bolsters Rothenberg's heel-digging alto and Stein's mouthy bass clarinet on "Not Seeing," yet the ensemble's shimmy unfolds in a reflective, elongated manner.

There is a wealth of tonal information and gutsy feeling in each of these pieces, yet the music of Renga is never all-at-once. As with many advanced or simply excellent records, its secrets are both revealed gradually and plainly in view. The Room Is hinges on:

   sound coming up      the ground and . . .       the bottom of the horn

Clifford Allen, Brooklyn, December 2014

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Product Information:

UPC: 641444161621

Label: Allos Documents
Catalog ID: 010
Squidco Product Code: 20826

Format: CD
Condition: New
Released: 2015
Country: USA
Packaging: Digipack
Recorded at Electrical Audio in Chicago, Illinois, on April 12th, 2013 by Greg Norman.


James Falzone-Bb and Eb clarinets

Ken Vandermark-Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone

Keefe Jackson-tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, contra Bb bass clarinet

Jason Stein-bass clarinet

Ben Goldberg-Bb clarinet, contra Eb alto clarinet

Ned Rothenberg-Bb clarinet, alto saxophone

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Track Listing:

1. Prelude 1:17

2. Not Seeing 6:37

3. The First Renga (Ben) 4:15

4. The Second Renga (Ken) 2:32

5. The Room Is 8:57

6. Interlude 1:15

7. White 11:24

8. The Third Renga (Keefe) 2:36

9. The Fourth Renga (Ned) 2:48

10. Until 13:32

11. The Fifth Renga (James) 3:55

12. The Sixth Renga (Jason) 3:04

13. That Red Apple 7:37

14. Postlude 1:22