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Daniel Levin Quartet - Don't Go It Alone

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Artist: Daniel Levin Quartet

Album: Don't Go It Alone

Label: Riti

Review date: Nov. 19, 2003

Fans of creative improvised music can be a fickle and surly lot. I’ve occasionally heard folks grouse that all the giants are gone. That the supply of Olympian players is swiftly dwindling and that few, if any, of the new recruits show sufficient promise to fill the vacant shoes. Whether or not these contentions are valid is moot. Death comes for us all and lamenting the passing of influential artists is ultimately like decrying global poverty. The act might make us feel better, but the end result is the same. There’s also the reality of time. Coltrane didn’t arrive in full bloom. It took him years to hone his craft and shape it into the juggernaut voice that still resonates today.

Cellist Daniel Levin is a young man. Don’t Go it Alone is his first album as a leader. The disc carries a prescient title, as most of the music here is very much a team endeavor. Morris opens the action on “Unfortunate Situation” with a blunt repeating bass throb. Levin’s microtonal slides respond, recalling those of fellow stringsmith Mat Maneri. He glides across the cello’s registers, shaving off continuous ribbons of sound. Mat Moran sounds like he’s bowing the slats of his vibraphone, creating hovering tones that hang with hypnotic luminescence. Dave Ballou makes mealy breath noises through his cornet’s mouthpiece. Joe Morris plods along with a slowly ambling ostinato.

Oddly enough, theirs is a music that seems to have more in common with European chamber improv than jazz. The resulting austerity gets to be a bit trying in spots. On “Underground” Morris’ fingers plumb a corpulent progression answered by Levin’s thinly spun interaction with Moran’s delicately deployed mallets. Ballou is the last to arrive, blowing soft lambent gusts laced with tufts of metallic gossamer. Once again the general movement is circular and whorl-shaped. The legato streams of “17th Street” echo a ballad’s lyrical reach and feature close interplay between Ballou’s more openly melodic brass and Levin’s stringent, vaguely downcast string shapes.

Much of Levin’s music feels transitory. Like quickly evaporating beads of moisture or the rapidly dissipating smoke trails from a recently extinguished fire. “In Parts” starts violently with staccato snatches of bowed cello and bass. Worried string rubbing eventually makes room for warbling cornet and bustling vibraphone clusters. Once again the music exists in an ethereal state of freefall as the four instruments encroach and recede. Moran’s mallets traffic in dense repetition and rippling tonality that recalls Bobby Hutcherson’s moody free-associative forays for Blue Note in the ’60s. Suddenly he switches off the motor and goes at it xylophone-style, the amplification-divested planks sounding starkly naked in contrast. A recycling of the initial bowed string violence takes the piece out.

Levin’s pieces regularly pare and parse at the quartet’s parameters, combining instruments commonly in pairs and making strong use of swiftly shifting counterpoint. “Nervous” is another piece gauged in harmonic increments. This time Morris and Ballou act as primary catalysts. Moran fills in the cracks with off-kilter notes. “Bronx no. 2” packs the most overt energy and dissonance of any piece on the disc, so much so that Moran’s labored grunts are even audible. Morris sets up a brisk anchoring line and the others parade across and around it at varying trajectories and speeds. Levin snaps, slaps and slices his strings to great calefactory effect as Ballou acts as the animated coolant, his bluish phrases spilling out in sputtering gouts.

There’s a lot of involving interplay throughout the disc’s ten tracks. As a sum debut they stand quite strong. Whether Levin’s in a league comparable to more lionized players seems hardly relevant. He’s shown himself here to be someone to keep an ear cocked towards. There’s little doubt he’ll be making his mark as time marches on.

By Derek Taylor

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