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A dream you can't escape

4 stars (out of 5 stars)
Reviewed: Sept. 3, 2010

Review by Brad Walseth

Some of the most exciting music of the year has emerged from Seattle, where Saigon-born trumpeter Cuong Vu (Pat Metheny) teaches at the University of Washington; and on Speak, the faculty advisor sat in on this recording with some of his talented students on an album of their original compositions. Citing varied influences from Ligeti to Toto, Speak combines the energy of progressive rock and polyrhymic jazz. Straggering toward you like that serial killer in a dream you can't escape, keyboardist Aaron Otheim's opening number, "Amalgam in the Middle" offers aggrresive contrapuntal acoustic piano, wavy synths, sudden changes and anthemic horns (saxophonist Andrew Swanson and Vu in unison), and Vu on electronically distorted trumpet. It is an unsettling yet hypnotic sign of things to come.

Bassist Luke Bergman's "People or Cats" is a moody, yet addictive piece - seemingly built around a series of pedal point intervals moving in cycles that swells to oceanic levels, drifts into an improvised sound collage, and then returns to intensity. His heart-pounding "Pickpockets" follows and really drives home hard the polyrhythmic directions this group employs. Bergman, Otheim and drummer Chris Icansiano keep the group aligned, while Swanson adds some of his best and most ferocious playing. The song takes an evil turn into electronic noise 2/3rds of the way through, sounding as if pterodactyls were strafing a munitions plant, before recovering to totter home. Swanson's "Mustard Knuckles" is an appealing melodic number with some surprising turns and another big climax. The song also features some nice tom and cymbal work by Icansiano as well as Bergman's nasty fuzz bass. Drummer Icansiano's "Pure Hatred" live up to its title, and as written by a drummer, is a complex rhythmic number that almost gets funky before the inevitable "air raid" in the middle. Vu and Swanson's intensive squalling leads up to a harrowing conclusion. Otheim's "Litany Split" serves as the welcome calm after all the storms, but the quietude is short-lived as the group builds to a frightening end that serves as a warning that more thunderstorms may on the way from this excellent group.

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