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Noah Kaplan Quartet - Descendants (2011)

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The title for the Noah Kaplan Quartet's debut album makes all the sense in the world when you look up the word “descendant" in the dictionary. There, you'll find one of the definitions read “deriving or descending from an ancestor." In the case of saxophonist Noah Kaplan, he's learned from microtonal pioneer Joe Maneri, and with the passing of the great Maneri as the liner notes of Descendants were being prepared, Kaplan has stepped into huge vacuum suddenly left behind.

Kaplan's sax weeps and wails without needing to get all guttural. He invests his craft into emotions—often very discreet ones—first, and into technical matters last, much as Maneri did it. Though his way of expression is so foreign to most, it can be mistaken for winging it, but there's a method to his madness, and that method is the microtonal approach. The odd intervals, the unusual scales, the elusive root, the floating meter...there's something distinctly non-Western about the music but impossible to pin down anywhere else geographically, either. That's what, to me at least, makes it all the more fascinating.

It's not just Kaplan, as the “Quartet" in the name makes clear. Joe Morris, in his primary role as a guitarist, is a microtonalist's best friend, having collaborated with Maneri on many occasions. Morris takes a role of deploying free-tone lines below Kaplan and closely alongside electric bassist Giacomo Merega. Merega, in turn, ventures up often in the higher reaches of his instrument, and intensely pliable as this music demands it, often recalling the probing, relentless technique of Jamaaladeen Tacuma. Drummer Jason Nazary has popped up on several good whack jazz records I've stumbled upon in the last couple of years, including those by Scurvy, Little Women and the new one by Darius Jones. On Descendants, he again applies textures, sometimes in conjunction with setting fractured rhythms that are perfectly attuned to what Morris and Merega are doing.

Each of the six tracks take on a distinct line of attack, but the best for my money are the second and forth ones. “Descent" builds up into a boiling cauldron of rhythm section concurrent improvisation, not once but twice. “Rat Man," perhaps inadvertently, throws off that same free funk vibe often heard from Ornette Coleman's Prime Time band.

Joe Maneri's death two years ago marked the loss of one of the godfathers of the modern improvisers. His legacy left behind isn't just records and performances, but also his protégés. In leading such a capable band and learning well from the old master, Noah Kaplan has shown on Descendants that Maneri's legacy is strong and as vital as ever.


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