“… they stretch the expected boundaries of the vocal-bass-piano trio line-up yet remain anchored to the soul of jazz.” –Bruce Crowther, Jazz Mostly
TranceFormation’s October 9th, self-titled concert album takes some getting used to. Vocalist Andrea Wolper, pianist Connie Crothers, and double-bassist Ken Filiano — long-time musical conspirators and, individually, jazz stars — really take avant-garde too far under the auspices of, as Filiano said, “getting into the trance mode.”
The well-respected leading bassist (Quantum Entanglements) with an inventive jazz pedigree elaborated: “I believe that the potency of music comes to full realization when it is received by listeners who are in the moment, too. The sounds and sonic structures we get into during the free stretches transform themselves throughout the improvisations—and we (the players and listeners both) can get expectations transformed by the arrival of sounds that can be contrary to the expected. [liner notes].”
Recorded from their live gigs at New York City’s The Stone and Korzo, “TranceFormation In Concert [New Artists Records]” reflects a single-minded, ill-advised dedication to letting go of charts, set lists, any sort of structure — and melody — found in the typical jazz gig, and to just let loose with whatever they’re inspired to play.
Vocalist Wolper, who’s shown an adept facility for becoming one with the instruments — in judicious, limited amounts, within melodic context, mind you — on her solo album, “Parallel Lives [September 13, 2011],” quite literally, goes a little overboard on this live album.
She fills up almost the entire live album with embarrassing body noises, in an excessively earnest effort to read her music partners’ random, Spartan sound effects. “It’s all about listening and feeling,” Wolper said. “Everything I do is a direct result of what Ken and Connie play. I never really know what direction the music will take. It’s not reactive; it’s instant by instant. I’m not remembering the last instant or thinking of the instant that follows.”
What results is Wolper practically destroying whatever small glimmer of hope for melody exists in the few strains provided by bassist Filiano and pianist Crothers. Essentially, the band goes nowhere fast, but has fun every step of the way in their journey to the present. That makes three of us.
Too bad most listeners, even the avant-garde ones, won’t even bother to listen to the rest.
All but the last song is Wolper performing her impromptu poetry slam—mostly with gutteral sounds remotely mimicking some emotion swiped at through the faint hints of background instrumentation (think heroine walking up a spiral staircase in a horror film)—and not very well. She’s making this up as she goes along—and it shows in a terribly amateurish fashion, stream of consciousness gibberish for the sake of filling in the blanks.
Good jazz may have complicated harmonic convergences, may even stray to some foreign, eclectic, high-brow territory, but it always has to come back home to melody, always. There’s no melody in this album, none—unless you count rambling on and on about finding dollar bills on the sidewalk, tripping over your words and stuttering aimlessly until you can hear the spit between the teeth and gums … melody. Most of the free world doesn’t.
Everything on this album is simply awful. Guaranteed, the average passer-by—no matter how open-minded—will turn the CD off within seconds of opening TranceFormation’s jazz performance art gone wrong, “The Same Moon.” The violin tenor of Filiano’s bass coupled with Crothers’ thundering backbeat piano works—until Wolper starts talking in a know-it-all, purposely obscure hither (after having an orgasm): “Einstein said, ‘Do you think the moon is only there … when you’re looking at it?’ And you know sometimes … I wonder. Is the moon only there if I am looking at it?” Who cares? Stop trying so hard to be beatnik-deep. Just sing!
The scariest, unimaginatively unmelodic disaster area is “When Souls Run Around In The Night.” Wolper gives up human forms of speech, degenerating into the pure distillation of vocal whimpers in some vain imitation of ghosts, goblins, and mice, as she sounds possessed by evil. It’s so hard to focus on what’s going on musically, if anything, with all that haunted caterwauling. Such a waste of a fine voice. Crothers and Filiano are, again, just playing sound effects in some 1920s B movie, as the piano prances and rolls up and down invisible stairs, and the bass echoes in monochromatic bleakness.
In the “The Fifth Stone,” Wolper has a vocal seizure throughout the entire three minute-58-second piece. At one point, she’s either tapping her microphone uncontrollably or using it as a vibrator. The phlegmatic narrative here reminds me of a woman suffering from severe mental illness, perhaps a split personality. By now, and it’s only the third song, Wolper’s vocal ticks are becoming tedious.
The only blessing with “The Things You See In New York City” is, at least she’s speaking English. And Filiano’s opening bass sounds legit. But then Wolper goes off on a pathetic, pointless, self-indulgent tangent (is this a desperate audition for Second City, or a one-woman off-off-Broadway debut?) about walking the big city, finding naked cowboys, no, wait, … “a man sitting in a garbage can,” something about a “lawn chair,” money, and surviving naiveté with mannered, affected cynicism. Talking (forced vivacity, rumbling, mumbling, mincing Valedictorian speech) isn’t her strong suit either. She’s not singing, she’s doing a children’s book reading for the over-educated, upper-middle class at a suburban mall, or trying to impress alternative newspaper critics in a downtown Seattle poetry slam.
This mincing preciousness is never more apparent than when she talks about finding “a $20 bill on the ground… [unintelligible gibberish, running words together] … turn it into the LOST. AND. FOUND. There’s no lost and found. There’s only LOST. And FOUND.” Got it. “It’s really something.” No it’s not.
“Whale Song” opens with a lovely tinkle of ominous piano notes and a faint warning from the alarm of a bass before—there she goes, there’s Wolper, now trying to be a whale, communing with other whales. Oh brother. Completely unbearable.
Just skip “Lines And Circles, Squared” altogether. It’s more of the same, but in some attempt at tribal be-bop scat. Headache. Like listening to someone dying.
“Sea Island Sometimes” rewards the patient, partially hearing-impaired listener with an actual song sung by the vocalist. But that ain’t saying much.
By the time this CD’s over, it’s a relief just to listen to Spice Girls’ greatest hits, or Justin Bieber.