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Scott Rosenberg's Skronktet West - EL

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Artist: Scott Rosenberg's Skronktet West

Album: EL

Label: Spool

Review date: Jul. 11, 2003

Bay Improv at its Best

Saxophonist/clarinetist Scott Rosenberg once studied with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University, and while Braxton's influence has always been present in Rosenberg's music, the reedist has never really sounded like anyone but himself. On his brilliant 2001 release V: Solo Improvisations, Rosenberg's series of visceral, extended-technique-based improvisations actually sounded like their titles, like "WRRRRTKK" and "Xxhlllrlr." The album sounded nothing like Braxton's music, but Rosenberg's tendency to organize his music in terms of types of sounds was similar to Braxton's systems of language music, in which collections of numbered approaches and techniques became the phonemes of improvisation.

EL does showcase Rosenberg's interest in coaxing weird sounds from his instruments, but it also shows that Braxton's influence on him went well beyond what we heard on V. Rosenberg's compositions, particularly the opening "Tddk," sound like he's listened to plenty of Braxton's recent Ghost Trance Music -– they're quirky and angular, with streams of evenly-paced notes changing register abruptly, then splintering into weird tuplet rhythms. Rosenberg's use of Braxton's angularity is merely a beginning, however, not an end; Rosenberg's compositions contain more than their fair share of surprising twists, like the excellent rock-like finale of "Ellhg + Sttm [Krind]."

Still, most of Rosenberg's compositions – or, at least, the parts I think he through-composed – are melodic, based on notes and rhythms. The Skronktet's improvisations, though, tend to be skittish and textural, which is no surprise given what they've done before. Rosenberg's bandmates here (clarinetist Matt Ingalls, guitarist John Shiurba, bassist Morgan Guberman and percussionist Gino Robair) are some of the best improvisers in the Bay Area (which really is saying something – the flourishing improv scene there gets far less attention from the press and the public, even in improv terms, than it deserves). Shiurba and Robair, especially, are worthy of mention: Shiurba is unfortunately underutilized on EL, but he's comfortable with both scratchy, nervous improv and rock-like bombast, and he has a brilliant fried-amp guitar tone. Robair is a powerful drumset player with a knack for hitting the perfect odd auxiliary instrument at the right time.

All five players are strong, however, and it's a testament to their ability that the Skronktet is able to seamlessly transition among various styles – musically, it's a long way from many of Rosenberg's compositions to the noisy improv that often follows, but none of the changes seem forced. Finally, it's worth mentioning that EL sounds terrific: Dave Greenberg's recording is superb. For fans of the improv scenes in, say, New York or Chicago who are unfamiliar with what's happening on the West Coast, EL is an excellent introduction because it features a number of the Bay Area's best players playing well and imaginatively in several improv styles.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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