Aside from the work of Karen Borca — who has held her own on recordings by the likes of Cecil Taylor, Bill Dixon, and Jimmy Lyons — the bassoon is notable mostly for its absence from rock, jazz and improvised music. Even within the realm of classical music, its most common refuge, it’s hardly an oft-featured solo instrument. Katherine Young may or may not be out to change her instrument’s status, but whatever her intent, she’s likely to do just that with her quartet Pretty Monsters. The group has existed in two versions, both centered upon her bassoon and electronics. The NYC version, which recorded this CD, includes violinist Erica Dicker, guitarist Owen Stewart-Robertson and drummer Mike Pride; the line-up recruited from the Chicago creative music scene, where she is currently active, subs guitarist Jeff Parker and drummer Tim Daisy.
The combo stakes out ground in the in-between spaces where so much interesting work happens these days. Having seen the group with different players, I can vouch for how much room Young gives her musicians to bring their own voice. With Daisy, these pieces swung and flowed. Pride stiffens the cadences and hardens the edges, so that each strike of a drum or cymbal (and sometimes there’s just one for a stretch of time) sets a boundary that you’ll cross at risk of harm. And when he gets going, as happens on the towering “Feldspar,” he sounds like Charles Hayward getting all Incredible Hulk on the band’s ass.
Not that the rest of them are cowed. Hacked guitar chords, shredding violin scrapes, and electronically treated bassoon slosh against Pride’s walls of cadence and each other, as agitated as the water in a vigorously shaken fish tank. But even in moments of abandon, this music feels controlled; the improvised solos sound like essential facets of the compositions. This is because Young, like her occasional employer Anthony Braxton, understands that selecting a musician and creating the right opportunity can be a powerful compositional act.