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On the oddly charismatic Clockwise, Anna Webber presents music that is rigorous and unrelenting, doggedly pursuing compositional ideas where others might not. Nevertheless, she persists, in a collection of pieces far friendlier that that description suggests. It helps that she has a spectacular ensemble on hand to realize these pieces; her septet includes trombonist Jacob Garchik and pianist Matt Mitchell. But as much as they elevate the material, Webber’s writing gives them a running boost.
Webber first grabbed ears as a flutist playing against type, with a steely tone and iron-willed improvisations, and then as a tenor saxophonist not given to sentimental gestures; hearing her own compositions offers added context for these stylistic choices. Her music stalks a middle ground between modern classical music and composition-centered jazz, and the pieces on Clockwise blend elements of both. Webber reports that the music on Clockwise was inspired by some of the heaviest hitters in 20th-century composition — John Cage, Morton Feldman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, to name a few — and specifically by detailed study of their percussion pieces. Her studies have presumably shaped several short (under two-minute) pieces that emphasize the rhythmic aspects of even traditionally melodic instruments: “King of Denmark I” presents an eerie, busy braid of flute, piano and vibes, while “King of Denmark II” is a spare tone poem for Ches Smith’s timpani and Christopher Hoffman’s banshee cello.
Webber’s focus shifts dramatically on the nearly 10-minute “Loper,” where a simple, stately theme retreats to become a relentless metronome anchoring the improvisations. Webber’s tenor solo doubles back on itself, crashing against that metronome, until it threatens to explode — at which point the theme leaps to the foreground to restore order. Although the context varies throughout the piece, the rhythm never changes.
Most of Clockwork boasts a punchy immediacy that cuts through academic concerns. The jaunty title track operates like a 17-jewel Swiss watch, with a mechanism formed by the interlocking juxtaposition of rhythmic and melodic motifs. “Korē I” delights with Garchik’s comical wah-wah trombone before mimicking the “big finish” cadences of early 19th-century symphonies — music that challenges a listener without feeling the least like homework.—Neil Tesser
Featured photo by Evan Shay.