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Anna Webber has firmly established a reputation as an innovative improviser and composer whose works blur the lines between jazz improvisation and new music. As the title of her latest album, a double-disc production, suggests, the saxophonist-flutist has set out to accomplish nothing less than to create a musical language of her own. Extended techniques such as multiphonics — producing several notes simultaneously — are in abundance, and not just as vehicles for solo expression, but as elements employed by the group and embedded in the compositions themselves.
Disc One features Webber’s long-running Simple Trio with pianist Matt Mitchell and drummer John Hollenbeck. Disc Two expands the palette with a 12-piece ensemble that includes a mix of jazz luminaries — including trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and trombonist Jacob Garchik — and new music stars such as violinist Erica Dicker and cellist Mariel Roberts.
The repeating, whirring flute-piano counterpoint of the opening trio track “Idiom I” suggests a Steve Reich composition, but with a harder edge, thanks in large part to Hollenbeck’s flickering percussion. “Idiom III’s” danceable rhythms, punctuated by Mitchell’s pulsing staccato, provide an ironic contrast to Webber’s quivering drones on tenor. “Forgotten Best” represents a slight departure; its descending harmonic structure is almost stately compared with the abstractions found elsewhere.
Things turn especially dizzying when Webber applies her techniques to the large ensemble, which takes on the seven-track suite comprising “Idiom VI.” Strings and horns produce a sound like a buzzing hive on “Movement I,” with quick, dissonant interjections from the group intermittently disrupting the murmur. The album’s final piece, “Interlude 4 & Movement VI,” begins with a celestial atmosphere of flute multiphonics and ends in a thicket of sound before giving way to Webber’s fluttering, whispering tenor.
Dense and complex, sometimes unsettling but frequently playful, Idiom is certainly not casual listening. But the more you give in to Webber’s extraordinary sonic universe, the deeper the rewards. — John Frederick Moore