On Leap of Faith: "Alien yet familiar, bizarre yet completely fascinating. Expanding, contracting, erupting, settling down, always as one force..." - Bruce Lee Gallanter, DMG
Leap of Faith Orchestra – Helix (Evil Clown, 2017) ****
By Troy Dostert, The Free Jazz Collective
One thing you can say for sure about David Peck (PEK), the founder and inspirational force behind the Leap of Faith Orchestra: he’s on a mission. A relentless mission, if the ever-expanding discography of the group is any indication. A quick glimpse at Leap of Faith’s bandcamp page reveals dozens of recordings made within the last few years alone—and eight already in 2017. A good number of the group’s releases are live recordings, such as Helix, recorded at Third Life Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts in March of 2017, and released the day after the performance, with PEK using a portable recording set-up he describes in a post to a previous review on this blog. There is a classic DIY ethic to the group’s approach, equally evident in the making, producing, and selling of the music. While the cumulative effect of this strategy can be a bit overwhelming for the listener/consumer—how exactly does one choose from this bewildering array of releases? Where even to begin?—you have to hand it to PEK for utilizing all the resources at his disposal in pursuing his musical calling with fierce independence and tenacity. This is no-holds-barred improvisation in its most challenging, uncompromising form, and it takes a special kind of resilience, determination and, perhaps, quixotic idealism to forge ahead with such an endeavor as long as PEK and his comrades have been doing it.
So what’s particularly interesting about this recording that might help distinguish it from the myriad other releases in the Leap of Faith catalogue? It’s really a “double” release, in the sense that the first half of the recording is comprised of four roughly 15-minute improvisations played by “sub-units” of four members each from the larger orchestra, while the second portion consists of a longer, 50-minute improvisation involving all thirteen members of the orchestra. While there have been plenty of performances with larger groupings of the orchestra, PEK points out in his notes on the recording that this is the largest assemblage of Leap of Faith to date in which the goal is (almost) totally unstructured improvisation. In the past he’s used various scripts and rules to prevent the larger group from falling into chaos during unfettered improvisation, but here there was only one constraint: that every member of the orchestra had to lay out for twenty minutes of the performance. (Leap of Faith typically uses a large digital timer in its performances to allow for rules like these to be followed.) So with Helix, then, we get to hear the musicians in both formats: the smaller-scale, more intricate improvisations made by just four members at a time, as well as all the power and (semi-) controlled cacophony the larger group can offer.
The sub-unit performances are quite strong overall, with each offering distinctive possibilities through intriguing instrumental groupings. PEK, who plays a sizable assortment of horns, as well as tube-o-phone, slide whistles, and many other items, is featured on the first, “Arc,” along with long-standing Leap of Faith member Glynis Lomon (cello), Matt Scutchfield (violin), and Matt Samolis (flute). Lomon and Scutchfield define a lot of the terrain, as Lomon’s huge, extravagant sound is a constant dominant presence, with Samolis and PEK offering their own multifarious explorations, PEK in particular drawing from the astonishing array of sounds his range of instruments can create—and yes, manic vocalizations are also present. Sub-unit #2’s performance, “Torsion,” showcases the guitar of Grant Beale and guitar synthesizer of Chris Florio, along with Zach Bartolomei’s own menagerie of horns (including not only alto and soprano sax but melodica and slide whistle as well) and Kevin Dacey’s drums. Dacey’s percussion provides a somewhat more cohesive feel to this track, generating periodic bursts of collective fire, although with plenty of room for the others to maneuver as they see fit. Sub-units #3 and #4 are similarly varied in both instrumentation and dynamics, with creative touches throughout, especially in percussive effects, something that Leap of Faith uses extensively; many members of the group have a range of options (glockenspiel, crotales, various metal objects, etc.) that they can use to complement their primary instrument(s). This is critical to the anything-can-happen aspect of the group’s identity. The listener has to be prepared at all times for bizarre juxtapositions and anarchic flourishes when listening to this music.
As for the 50-minute improvised extravaganza with the entire orchestra, “Helix,” it begins with what PEK calls a “wood cloud texture,” with most or all of the group members employing a barrage of percussive implements, before the piece starts to assume a shape formed around musical fragments introduced by several of the players. The overall mood of the first section is a reticent one—perhaps conditioned by the 20-minute rule mentioned above, which would seem likely to subordinate individual self-assertion in the interest of maintaining group cohesion. Witness the dusky, chamber-like segment between pianist Eric Zinman, cellist Lomon and guitarist Beale about ten minutes in, with plaintive phrases from PEK riding overhead, for example. But it doesn’t take too long for the intensity to build, and as Dacey’s drums begin filling the room one senses the surging power waiting to explode. It never quite does completely, and things do generally stay under control—perhaps a bit too much, in fact, as at times the performance does seem to lose energy—although there are some hair-raising moments along the way capable of startling and challenging even the most experienced listeners of freely-improvised music.
“Helix” is a striking example of what can be done by larger ensembles within the realm of free improvisation. Perhaps PEK will soon give this a try with even larger permutations of the Leap of Faith Orchestra. Given the group’s trademark spirit of intrepid risk-taking, it’s hard to imagine he won’t.
Note: the following YouTube links include the entire recording, and they really are valuable in shedding light on the group’s music. Especially with the frequent switching of instruments, having a visual referent adds another level of interest to this fascinating ensemble
- Troy Dostert, The Free Jazz Collective
“…This is no-holds-barred improvisation in its most challenging, uncompromising form… there are some hair-raising moments along the way capable of startling and challenging even the most experienced listeners of freely-improvised music. ‘Helix’ is a striking example of what can be done by larger ensembles within the realm of free improvisation…”
Troy Dostert, The Free Jazz Collective (see below for the full review)
Drawing of the show by Glynis' friend Mick...
Disk 1: Sub-Unit Videos
Photos by Rob Miller
2 Audio CDs Evil Clown 9136
Leap of Faith Orchesta & Sub-Units - Helix
streaming, downloads and CD mail Order
1) Sub-Unit 1: Arc (15:34)
2) Sub-Unit 2: Torsion (15:26)
3) Sub-Unit 3: Curvature (15:15)
4) Sub-Unit 4: Tendril Perversions (15:29)
5) Leap of Faith Orchestra: Helix (51:19)
First concert at a new venue... Third Life Studios in Somerville! This is the small format Leap of Faith Orchestra performing pure improvisation with the largest ensemble so far (13 players) without a score. For these shows we do a group of short sets by sub-units of the orchestra (this time four 15 minute quartets) and then a longer set (50 minutes) with everyone.
For Helix, I established just one rule - each player should lay out for 20 of the 50 minute duration... this simple rule was effective in guiding the improvisation through many different movements... I also had us open with a wood cloud texture.
- PEK - 21 March 2017
PEK - tenor & bass saxophones, clarinet, contra-alto clarinet,
dulzaina, tatora, guanzi, contrabassoon, sheng, tube-o-phone, slide
whistles, melodica, hand chimes, game calls, crotales, cymbells,
bullroarer, wind & crank sirens, aquasonic, kazoo, taxi horn, clown
glockenspiel, hand chimes, balafon, metal, wood, voice (3,4,5)
Dan O’Brien - piccolo, flute, tenor sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, wood (3,5)
Zach Bartolomei - soprano & alto saxophones, clarinet, melodica, slide
whistle, crotales, cymbells, metal, wood, voice (2,5)
daiko, metal, wood, voice (4,5)
Matt Scutchfield - violin, metal, wood (1,3,5)
Grant Beale - guitar, wood (2,5)
Chris Florio - guitar synthesizer, wood (2,5)
Eric Zinman - piano, kazoo, slide whistle, wood (4,5)
Kevin Dacey - drum set, dan-mo, glockenspiel, hand chimes, metal, wood (2,5)
Leap of Faith Orchestra & Sub-Units - Helix
Third Life Studios, Somerville MA
18 March 2017
Rob Miller Photo tweak by PEK
Sub-Unit 4: Tendril Perversions
Disk 2: Leap of Faith Orchcestra - Helix Video
On Metal Chaos Ensemble: "... using unique strategies to yield densely active and eerily surreal music, an incredible excursion through experimental improvisation." - Squidco website staff
Composer and multi-instrumentalist, PEK, set his sights on something bigger with the Leap of Faith Orchestra's Supernovae. The previous incarnation of the LOFO expands from the fifteen musicians on The Expanding Universe (Evil Clown, 2016) to twenty-one players on this new outing. Another noteworthy element of this project is PEK's use of Frame Notation where the score is seen in written descriptions and straight-forward symbols within Duration Bars. The system provides the musicians with immediate understanding of their own parts and the higher-level arrangement of the music.
Supernovae consists of a single track composition running just under eighty minutes. The digital download includes a bonus track. Though the extended piece is not broken out by formal movements, there are clear delineations within the score. PEK's ensemble—not surprisingly—includes enough non-traditional and weird instruments to compete with a Dr. Seuss orchestra. Though they are not playing in a vacuum, that group of instruments dominates the first ten minutes before strings and reeds make themselves more clearly heard. Forty-five minutes in, we have the first case of prolonged melody, darker and more subdued than the overall tone of the first half.
Supernovae gives way to free improvisation overlaying the melody. Eventually the piece introduces a brilliant percussion passage before it reintroduces the non-traditional music elements, but here in a more refined manner. As with all of PEK's compositions, there is—behind the scenes—a painstaking amount of organization that is not always evident in the listening. That is part of the beauty of this album; the non-traditional approach to instrumentation and the lack of adherence to Western structure continue to make the various iterations of Leap of Faith consistently interesting. And interesting look at the written score can be viewed at http://www.evilclown.rocks/lofo-supernovae-score.html.