Organized disorder

Posted: Thursday, December 30, 2010

Some of the world's finest music has roots in seeming chaos

You may never suspect it, but a lot of your friends and colleagues are living life by the skin of their teeth. Even the ones who seem to have things especially together may be the most frazzled in the privacy of their own home. Here at this season of end-of-year deadlines piled on top of regular daily business, your so-called perfect fellow humans are likely losing sleep trying to maintain their sanity.

The evidence may or may not be obvious, but if you look hard enough you'll see it's there - maybe their desk or apartment is messier than usual, or their ungroomed hair is well-hidden beneath a really cute hat. Some try harder than others to conceal their lack of togetherness, and some care more than others whether or not their image is damaged by the slipups.

Either way, none of us are perfect, and I like to think that those of us who embrace this truth are the most content in life, regardless of what our cohorts may think. The chaos many of us try to avoid is greatly celebrated in certain circles. Musically, some of the best tunes ever created were born out of chaos, the best of which can be tough to recreate.

Jazz has often been described as "organized chaos." Depending on one's perspective, the seeming lawlenessness of a jazz trio can provoke different reactions - to an untrained listener, understanding need not precede enjoyment, but to a member of the trio, the music may seem anything but lawless.

It would be foolish of me to attempt to dissect the origins or explain the anatomy of jazz or free form music, but I will suggest a few recent releases that have enhanced my relationship with the genre.

"Entanglement" by Harp 46

Harpist April Stace Vega has never let the oddity of her instrument keep her from pursuing styles of music in which a harp wouldn't typically be found. She has performed with the instrument in rock and classical settings, and now collaborates with percussionist and dulcimerist Nucleo Vega and bassist Posido Vega under the name Harp 46.

This, the group's first album, is strong for a debut. First of all, it captures my attention simply because of the instrumental diversity, but the variance doesn't stop there. From beginning to end, the album explores a handful of different styles, some with a definite classical influence, others journeying into the realms of rock.

If you hate the timbre of harp in general, the creativeness and originality found in this album may not be enough to please you. In any case, "Entanglement" offers a unique listening experience that will take your ears to new places from which they may never fully return.

"Looking For..." by Steve Ramsdell

This one is a couple years old, but to me it is a new discovery. Guitarist Steve Ramsdell and his buddies create a nice mix of many things on this album, a journey from structure to freedom and back again. With a master's degree in jazz pedagogy and a bachelor's in guitar performance, Ramsdell is well-qualified to stretch music the way that he does.

He describes and briefly comments on each track in the CD's liner notes, even describing each song's time signature, or lack thereof. Track nine, "Red Box," is described as "7/8 for the most part ... acoustic ... an episode composed in Sedona, Arizona ... red rocks, shifting meters, etc..." Other pieces beat up to 11, while a few free solos and duets prove that no consistent beat is necessary for a song's success.

If it weren't for Ramsdell's notations, I'd need to leave many tracks on repeat until I could accurately count to them and figure them out. His compositions are complex, yet totally digestible and pleasant on every occasion. I'd highly recommend "Looking For..." to longtime jazz lovers and newcomers alike.

"One Stolen Night" by the John Jorgenson Quintet

John Jorgenson and his gypsy jazz cohorts have put together a fine product in "One Stolen Night," released earlier this year. Jason Anick's violinning, which often doubles a melody also played by the guitar, is superb. The groove is set from the very first track, "Red on Red," with Anick's fiddle and Jorgenson's guitar solos backed by Simon Planting on bass, Rick Reed on percussion and Kevin Nolan on rhythm guitar. Though things slow down a bit after this, by track four, "Mediterranean Blues," it's clear that the momentum is still building.

There is so much liveliness in gypsy jazz - there are certainly similarities to other types of jazz, including the most traditional forms, but there's a uniqueness about the style that a lot of people, myself included, can't get enough of. One element is certainly the violin, which only occasionally appears in most jazz sets.

I know I already mentioned him a few inches ago, but Anick really kills it all over this album. Regardless, I wouldn't go changing the name of the quartet as Jorgenson truly is the star of this show, switching seamlessly between lead guitar, bouzouki (a Greek mandolin-type instrument), clarinet and soprano saxophone, and even throwing in a vocal line on "Dr. Jazz."

This music would be great for dancing or lovely at a party, but it's also great for simply sitting and contemplating. However, if the latter is your preferred listening method, I doubt you'll be sitting for too long before your toes voluntarily begin to tap.

• Contact Libby Sterling at

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