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Three Sides Of Susie Ibarra : Songbird Suite, Black Narcissus & El Danzon De Moises

To the eyes and ears of lackadaisical listeners it may seem that Susie Ibarra's had something of a diminished profile over the last few years. An explosive debut as a member of William Parker's Little Huey Orchestra and later stints in the bassist's In Order to Survive ensemble and as one fourth of the David S. Ware Quartet in the mid-Nineties cemented her stature as a New York improviser of note and high promise. Departure from these bands to focus on her own music and projects contributed to an illusory sense of her leaving the loop, but the welcome reality is that she's been as busy as ever in the interim. Honing her own compositional skills while simultaneously forging partnerships with the likes of Pauline Oliveros and Derek Bailey, as well as the friends featured on this trilogy of Tzadik releases, Ibarra continues to challenge both herself and the boundaries of the larger musical milieu of which she remains a vibrant part.

With instrumentation nearly equivalent to her earlier trio with Charles Burnham and Cooper-Moore, the opening track on Ibarra's Songbird Suite sounds as if it could pass as an outtake from their Radiance (Hopscotch) session. A jaunty beat born out of cantering brushes and Jennifer Choi's coquettish streaking lines circle around Craig Taborn's center, a mutable core that soon fragments and disperses into choppy chords. The shift into dissonance is ever so subtle, but once the change takes shape it yields a thrilling exchange between stabbing keys and sawing bow. The title suite starts with an almost imperceptible slice of electronics trailed by sobbing violin and the sporadic stutter of metal brush on stretched skin. Distant birdsong floats at the edges adding to the vista of ambient atmospherics. Taborn's miniature clusters tap through the twilight forest of the violinist's somber harmonics. The suite's final minutes are a complete contrast ablaze in furious interplay and ferocious volume; Choi sounds as if her strings will snap under the pulverizing pressure she applies to their surfaces. "Trance 1" brings in a Kulintang element with segmented arrhythmic beats and the ever friendly familiar of silence as a tension builder. Ibarra moves over her kit using timbre and density to full advantage with sticks and mallets. Taborn starts ominously on "Illumination", parsing out notes as Ibarra's mallets and Choi's tearful lines follow suit. It's an intensely lyrical piece shot through with a stratum of distemper.

Ikue Mori's Space Age laptop tinklings surface on "Trance No.2" merging curiously with the acoustic acrostics of Ibarra's malleted toms. The three transform "Flower After Flower", the titular track from Ibarra's earlier Tzadik release, as Choi splatters florid swatches of tonal pigment and the drummer opens up with a flood of stick-splintering press rolls. Heavy vibrato saturates "Nocturne", a quickly revolving piece of scurrilous concentric colloquy that soon implodes harmonically, leaving behind a freshly birthed arena wide open for sound. The aftermath suggests much menace and washes over into "Trance 3", an angry cloud of industrial sounds tethered to Choi's near static drones. "Passing Clouds" returns the trio to the innocence of its opener, capping with a hopeful air akin to the sun creeping from a bank of freshly depleted cumulus formations. Taborn traipses through the sanguine chords while Ibarra stitches the subtle, but steady beat and Choi sings a sweet lullaby of the strings stamped with delicate pizzicato flourishes.

Mori is much more of a presence in the context of Mephista, a cooperative ensemble that shares both leadership and compositional responsibilities in equal measure. The trio's diabolical moniker translates on Black Narcissus into music of fiendish twists and turns, often devoid of thematic center and heavily suffused in collective improvisation. It's a music that doggedly defies description and a dangerous place for those reliant on the creature comforts of traditional musical compasses like melody and harmony.

The danse macabre initiates with "The Children's Hour", a precocious succession of darkly brooding intersections that completely subverts the implied playfulness of its title. Electro-acoustic to the degree that the two halves are sometimes indistinguishable, the trio forms soundscapes that are sometimes pointillistic, other times bludgeoningly conspicuous. On the title track, piano entrails, gurgling diode electronics and off-kilter cymbals combine in an ominum-gatherum of odd bits and found sounds. A linear trajectory lies submerged just beneath the surface-seeming sonic detritus, audible, but only to the carefully sifting ear.

Percussion and, more explicitly, rhythm forms an important crux of the triangle's travels. Mori, herself a former drummer, deploys a battery of abstracted loops, blips and Doppler shifts from her various apparatuses and her role as chief texturalist makes it at times difficult to dissect her contributions from those of her partners. Her cybernetic enhancements of Ibarra's already formidable traps play on "Cabbalussa" offer one of many such instances where kilowatt-charged coils caress drum-driven acoustic beats. The riddle of sound ownership further complicates under Sylvie Courvoisier's eagerness to incorporate parts of her piano beyond the scope of the conventional ivories. Plucked strings and scraped surfaces serve her fancies as often as simply hammered keys.

Pachinko-style ricochets on "Willow's Weep" project a kinetoscopic series of percussive shifts contrasting with the later reverie that is "Leda and the Swan". Jump-cutting to "Poison Ivy", the piece erupts as a tangle of echo and transitory tones leaping and receding through a circuitous maze of oblique machinations. "Black Widow" sprawls out over a quarter of an hour and is the most extensive example of the trio's alien aesthetic. Mapping an amazing temporal topography of sounds both foreign and familiar, the three fill the minutes with a full family of ill-tempered sonic creatures. Mori pulls back on the rambunctious "Legend of Pele" allowing Ibarra and Courvoisier a less cluttered space to communicate. Unbridled impressionistic ingenuity comes sometimes at the expense of narrative flow and the tracks don't always assemble into satisfying wholes. The breadth and diversity of sounds and relationships conjured by the three are staggering, but moments still arise when it seems more like a tautological enterprise of noise-for-noise's sake.

A musical relationship with fellow percussionist/improviser/composer Roberto Rodriguez has allowed Susie Ibarra another outlet for her creative energies. As a member of his twelve-piece ensemble, her role in Rodriguez's recent project for Tzadik is more peripheral, but no less essential to the band's overall sound. Compared to Mephista's caliginous imaginings, the world of Rodriguez's Danzon works as a tropical tonic for the senses. El Danzon De Moises dishes up a simmering mix of Klezmerized Latin tunes and Latinized Klezmer tunes, but instead of being derivative or piecemeal, these tracks are both contemplative and entertaining. Listening to these playful discourses it's easy to envision a sun-bleached veranda at dusk where dancers couple and cavort under the emerging canopy of starlight constellations. Rodriguez's compositions are specially scripted to map the myriad of Afro-Cuban contingents in the Jewish Diaspora, tracing lines through Tango, Son and Beguine forms along the way. Jazz-based improvisation also plays a prominent part and many of the compositions work as inviting launching pads for individual extemporization.

The band supports significant girth in its plethora of instruments, but the leader's arrangements effectively dispel any cumbersome qualities, fitting the components together in combinations that emphasize harmonic space and melodic momentum. Strings and percussion regularly stoke the ensemble's engines, but Rodriguez steers clear of strict regimentation and players have the space to move about freely. In tandem, he and Ibarra knit a luxurious patchwork from trap kit and hand drums of various shapes, sizes and sonorities. "El Polaco" serves as a sort of salutatory introduction for the band's primary soloists. Ted Reichman, David Krakauer and Marcus Rojas each take terse, but superior turns over an onionskin rhythm borne on lilting syncopated percussion. Integral to "Danzonette Hebreo" is Mark Feldman's fluid violin and Jane Scarpantoni's somber cello, a minuet between the strings framed by the cadential stick work of the drummers.

Mystery and humor converge on "Guahira", an old favorite of the Carlos Santana group, as the members of the band give a collective shout of the title invocation during the breaks. "Shron" hints at less ebullient emotions voiced through the sustained throb of Reichman's squeezebox and the keening cry of clarinets. The title track spools out as a layered census of confluent voicings, Rojas' brass and Brad Jones' chugging alongside the drummers as reeds and strings sail above. "Jerusalem Market" stands out with a field recording-like coarseness to the fidelity that fits beautifully with the bustling syncopated beats that are front and center alongside the wailing horn soloists. Sampled crowd noises and a Spanish-speaking megaphone announcer intersperse, creating the illusion of street band feel. This is music that stimulates both the senses and the intellect.

Rodriguez and his band of talented peers achieve a successful synthesis of cultural capital from a variety of sources that never stumbles under the multiplicity of its origins. Best of all, they have a swell time doing it and it's an infectious sensation that feeds directly into listeners' ears, not to mention feet. Suffice it to say that with these three releases Ibarra has been keeping numerous pots simmering over an open flame. Thankfully these three offerings are only the beginning. The drummer everyone loves to love has much more in store.