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Review: Icarus Ensemble at Jazz Kitchen


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Icarus Ensemble
5 stars
The Jazz Kitchen, June 22

Icarus Ensemble’s singular aesthetic and voice grows from five virtuoso instrumentalists and composers who set out to push past their personal boundaries and carve out an interplanetary jazz-inspired terrain. The Icarus ensemble is Peter Hansen, bass; Dean Franke, violin; Mark Ortwein, soprano sax, bass clarinet, bassoon; Jon Crabill, percussion and drums; Gary Walters, piano. Like the mythological Icarus, they dare to break free from the inventions of others yet they retain the common sense to avoid ecstatic hubris. It is their balance between kinetic energy and motionless anticipation that intrigues.

Space is allowed; silence is revered.

Connecting with Icarus Ensemble live performances over the past eight or so years, I’ve recognized their sound materializes what I hear when I imagine the songs of the galaxy. Planets and moons moving within infinite space, yet maintaining a symbiotic relationship between bodies. Melodies and rhythms shift-shaping in horizontal and vertical lines and when they meet, like the double helix, twine until again they separate.

As a combo, the collection of instruments is unlike that of other jazz groups. Though there are solo jazz violinists whose playing brings another dimension to standards, with the Icarus Ensemble it’s the integration of the violin that stretches the genre expectation. Similarly, percussive elements move beyond the anticipated sound with the inclusion of bongo drums, small mallets and hand-playing. The bass here is more often bowed than plucked, the piano issues forth melody and rhythm from a full keyboard, as does the range of reed instruments—soprano sax, bass clarinet and electric and natural bassoon.

At the core of Icarus’ aesthetic are the original compositions communicating, not showcasing; articulating a palette of colors and calling nuanced attention to individual notes and collections of notes. The quintet’s escape from labyrinths invented by most modern jazz players gives the listener a greater sense of wellbeing. We’re not lost in some black hole groping for a way out; when a piece calls for spinning off, the tether to theme remains intact. Improvisation moves us toward the natural destination of a song.

The first set shared four pieces from the Ensemble’s newly released cd; the second set shared one. "Remembered" and new songs filled out the rest of the program, most notably introducing Dean Franke’s “Better Late than Never.” I went home filled with sounds of players and instruments enjoying each other’s company. And then I listened to the album, simply titled “Icarus Ensemble.” I listened all week, alone and in the company of others. Like the programming of Icarus Ensembles’ live performances the arc of the CD is equally transformative. We’re into every element, classical to modern to post modern, jazz from across continents and cross-over inventions. The titles of songs bring smiles, some pieces bring sighs of recognition. As an aggregate, the CD gifts with insightful humanity – it’s OK to join up with the galaxy and come back to talk about it.


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