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Unstable Ensemble - The Liturgy Of Ghosts

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Artist: Unstable Ensemble

Album: The Liturgy Of Ghosts

Label: Family Vineyard

Review date: Feb. 3, 2003

Like Being Carsick... In A Good Way


This album, the Unstable Ensembleís second, was recorded live in Pittsburgh, St. Louis, New York, North Carolina and Indiana. I like to imagine that the whole project was completed in a couple of days, with the entire group climbing out of the van after the ten-hour trip from Chapel Hill to Bloomington just in time to record a few pieces and do a short, late-night interview on IUís college radio station. The Liturgy Of Ghosts sounds like being carsick and wishing youíd shaved when you were crashing on that kidís dorm room floor at UNC. It's like trying to find a radio station while driving through West Virginia in the middle of the night and riding down the freeway with the window open in the cold to keep from falling asleep at the wheel. And I mean that in the best possible way.

The Unstable Ensembleís music is improvised, but letís not call it jazz; in order to get from the Unstable Ensemble to anything intimately related to the jazz tradition, you have to play six degrees of Kevin Bacon with Evan Parker and Steve Lacy and god knows who else. But the group is also a long way from most European free improvisers like Derek Bailey, whose music, for all its eccentricities, is confident and economical.

The Liturgy Of Ghosts, on the other hand, while purposeful, is deliberately paced and sounds uncertain. Five players, plus occasional guests, contribute to every track, but much of the disc features only a few at a time. The players wander slowly and quietly, leaving plenty of space. Baritone saxophonist Joe Donnelly, percussionist Matt Griffin and mixing board tweaker Eric Weddle all allow the spotlight to be pointed at soprano saxophonist Marty Belcher and guitarist Jason Bivins, who gently poke each other with languid phrases that end with question marks rather than periods.

Still, all the players here are important reasons why The Liturgy Of Ghosts works. Unlike a lot of American free jazz musicians, nobody in the Unstable Ensemble conveys unease by walking up to the front of the stage with a saxophone and belting away, depending heavily on the rhythmic and melodic contents of each line. Judging from some of the decidedly non-virtuosic playing on The Liturgy Of Ghosts, I wonder if they even have the chops to do so. Which is fine, because they pay so much attention to texture. Weddle and Griffin, in particular, often use long, unaccented sounds (hisses of static, cymbal rolls) that have more to do with timbre than rhythm or melody. Because of their playing, The Liturgy Of Ghosts gets as much mileage out of its mood as an ECM recording or a well-produced rock record. Unlike most free jazz acts, the Unstable Ensemble is probably better experienced on disc than live Ė the groupís music is emotionally direct because of color, not sweat or flying fingers. So even if The Liturgy Of Ghosts wasnít recorded on a whirlwind tour in a smelly van, it achieves a disoriented, 4 a.m. sort of queasiness thatís evocative of a long, late-night drive.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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