Album Reviews

Gene Ess

Absurdist Theater

Artist:     Gene Ess

Album:     Absurdist Theater

Label:     SIMP

Release Date:     09/26/2016


Since 2013, guitarist and composer Gene Ess has been focusing on writing and performing music that emphasizes using the human voice as an instrument in a small jazz quintet setting. Each offering has a theme based on intellectual idealisms; Absurdist Theater finds the composer writing music with the focused ideal of absurdism. The absurdist philosopher Albert Camus detailed that individuals should embrace the absurd condition of human existence while also boldly continuing to explore and search for meaning. Ess’ compositions are created with this in mind, and he is joined by Thana Alexa on vocals, Manuel Valera on piano and keyboards, Yasushi Nakamura on bass and Clarence Penn on drums.

The first sounds we hear on the album are from the track “Out of the Ashes,” Alexa’s clear voice is singing a series of beautiful intervals with only simple syllables in an a Capella setting. Ess’ guitar joins, and the two proceed to unfold a truly amazing counterpoint that builds. Valera doubles the vocal line, adding more color and depth, while Ess continues his repeated notes that build to a dissonant chordal climax that signifies the entrance of the rest of the band. The listener has already been informed of the music to come– it is thoughtful, developed with both patience and attention to detail, like orchestration and form. The music is ever evolving, and multi-textured in both melody and meaning. The two original themes stated in the intro are further developed in a seamless series of variations performed by the ensemble players and through an ever changing form. Ess’ solo is excellent, his warm sounding
hollow-body guitar clearly speaking in melodic phrases that build and interact with the musical surrounding. This is an outstanding opening track that hints of the magical journey to come.

The album demonstrates the many possibilities and colors that can be achieved with the voice. Of the eight compositions on Absurdist Theater, Alexa’s voice is used to present melodies in a syllabic form on six. However, she takes on the more traditional role of a vocalist by singing lyrics, which she wrote, on two selections, “Jade Stones” and “Déjala Que Pase.”

“Circe’s Compassion” is a brilliant example of using the voice as an instrument. Alexa sings the flowing melody in syllables over an active acoustic guitar part by Ess. Her voice is then used in a more percussive manner by singing staccato figures for an interlude, giving a rich variation and color within the form. Alexa is given equal solo space within the form as well; her abilities as a soloist are remarkable and enhance each composition.

Absurdist Theater marks Ess’ eighth release as a leader, and his focus continues to be on the journey, the music and the integrity of creation. He creates music that speaks to his overall quest of life and how his music is affected or reflected in it, making the listen even more meaningful. For the players involved, who call themselves Fractal Attraction, the chemistry continues to deepen with each new recording.

-Sylvannia Garutch

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