Originally published in Earshot Jazz May 2014
Combine slowly morphing harmonic clouds, electronic ambient sounds with the instrumental intensity of in your face honesty and you get Burn List, the group sound of trumpeter Cuong Vu, saxophonist Greg Sinabaldi, keyboardist Aaron Otheim and drummer Chris Icasiano. With no bass to anchor this ensemble, the music floats, pivots and soars on wings of virtuosity and joy while the electronic signal processing adds a slightly psychedelic vibe. Spotlights featuring a single musician are rare. The emphasis is on group improvisation. “Some people think this music sounds dark,” Sinabaldi said to me during an afternoon coffee hit. “But to me, it sounds beautiful.”
Vu and Sinabaldi have been musical partners for years. Both grew up in the Seattle area with Vu attending Bellevue High while Sinabaldi went to Interlake. The two migrated to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Now back on the West Coast, the refined tones emanating from their instruments echo the serious discipline of hours spent practicing. The blend is crisp and intoxicating.
Over the last few years, Otheim and Icasiano graduated from being Vu’s students at the University of Washington to his peers in musical exploration. The instant chemistry between the four musicians triggered the desire to develop a group of songs and record.
Burn List’s new self titled recording features an hour of evolving music spanning seven compositions by its members. Vinny LaBelle engineered the precise recording at Studio Litho in August of 2012 and Luke Bergman created the pristine final mixes.
The title track by Sinabaldi begins with some group improvisation smashed through the SuperCollider sound design software that Sinabaldi is studying at the University of Washington. I could swear I heard a steam calliope on a Mississippi riverboat or a carrousel from the fairgrounds. Once Icasiano sets up a groove, the song dances back and forth between two chords with the horns and keyboard alternating tight jabs and feints like a prize fight. After the composed section, everyone improvises in a slow escalation of energy. Suddenly, in silence, a small music box opens and the horns sigh a haunting lullaby. As the sound fades, seven minutes have elapsed without notice.
Track two is “Wire Cloud” by Otheim. A spinning wheel with uneven numbers of keyboard notes carries a slow chant by the horns. A steady drum marches against the hobbling keyboard rhythm, then aligns with the changing stream of notes. A tenor sax and drum duet breaks out with ominous bass notes from the keyboards. The song slows to a chorale in the winds with chiming piano and shimmering cymbals.
“Chau” by Icasiano features a three note loop that shifts through odd meters and harmonies, at first sounding like a skipping CD. After a sonorous trumpet and tenor melody, Vu launches skyward with digital effects trailing like a comet tail. One of the pleasures of listening to this group is not noticing when the written music ends and improvising begins. The chemical bonds between the performers are so strong that the transitions between solid, liquid and gas occur gradually and effortlessly.
“I Took a Fall” by Sinabaldi is a tone poem for his step-brother who fell 900 feet to his death while hunting on an Alaskan cliff. Eerie dissonances point downward and the trumpet and saxophone navigate an intricately tied ascent. A zero gravity solo piano interlude is followed by a giant striding march. The song ends with a sine wave that abruptly cuts to silence.
“The Star,” again by Sinabaldi, begins with quiet saxophone moans in a reverberant void. Trumpet and saxophone join a unison rubato melody over a buzzy bass line and detuned chimes. Drums kick the song into high gear and Vu moves from ballad to burn. The recording comes close to a traditional solo over bass line format. When Sinabaldi re-enters with the melody, Vu’s trumpet continues to squeal and whistle, joining the written part on the second time through.
“Schmucklehead” by Vu features Otheim’s distorted synthesis over Icasiano’s disjointed free rhythm. The song switches to an intricately tight unison statement from the whole ensemble. Sinabaldi breaks into a fast-paced solo over a slow moving bass and gestured percussion. Vu and Sinabaldi joust with Vu emerging in exploration of how far he can push sounds from trumpet, lips, lungs and voice. The song rocks out like a heavy metal show.
The melodic material for the final track, Sinabaldi’s “Alwa,” is lifted from the serial tone row for a character in Alban Berg’s 1934 opera Lulu. The clarity and dexterity of Vu’s trumpet statement here is nothing short of stunning. The magnetic tone and freedom of Sinabaldi’s tenor solo are infused with his mentor from Boston, George Garzone.
There’s a ton of music here to enjoy. Better yet, hear it live at the Chapel Performance space, 8pm on May 14.
Visit the links below to read more about the performers.