reviews for Transformations


James Emery: guitar, composer
with Klangforum Wien conducted by Emilio Pomarico
Tony Coe: tenor saxophone  Franz Koglmann: flugelhorn
Peter Herbert: bass

Between The Lines Records (btl 027)

Down Beat: "Best CDs of 2003" (4 1/2 stars)
Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 7th Ed.: 4 stars (out of 4) "Best CDs of 2003"
Best of New Orleans: "2003’s #1 CD"
Cuadernos de Jazz: 5-stars "Top ten CDs of 2003"

Down Beat ****1/2 (4 1/2 stars out of 5)
By Glenn Astarita

"Guitarist James Emery establishes the underpinning for this hugely ambitious undertaking by melding the loose elements of jazz improv with the austerity of an orchestral piece, performed by classically trained musicians. He delves into the third stream with this comprehensive effort, featuring Between The Lines’ stable of stars: flugelhornist Franz Koglmann and multi-reedman Tony Coe. And while many of Emery’s peers might fail – where classical stylizations and jazz sometimes mesh like oil and water – he majestically succeeds with this stunning production.

Emery features Coe and Koglmann throughout the opener, an eight-movement work titled "Transformations - Music For 3 Improvisers and Orchestra". The prime factor within this multi-part opus is the rather seamless integration of melodic, symphonic-based themes conjoined with the modern jazz vernacular. Emery’s mastermind features understated, freeform type diversions, yet the core trio and the Klangforum Wien orchestra work a melodramatically oriented primary theme into a set of counterbalancing soloing exercises. On "Movement II (The Flow Below)" you’ll hear wistful, upper register flutes unifying with a reverberating motif that spark notions of Stravinsky teaming with Philip Glass amid a rapidly paced improvising unit. Tonal contrasts abound, as a sense of musical oneness prevails, while Emery’s blistering single-note runs and polytonal harmonies act as an intensifying factor.

The second five-part piece, "4 Quartets", introduces bassist Peter Herbert into the grand scheme of things. Here, the jazz quartet embarks upon a chamberesque series of adornments via a highly interactive framework, consisting of free-flowing dialogues. Ultimately, Emery melds his cross-polarization concepts into neatly defined foundation for one’s imagination to run rampant."

The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 7th Edition (4 stars out of 4)
By Richard Cook and Brian Morton

“This is an extremely impressive achievement, a large-scale work for orchestra and improvising musicians. There is every ground for suspicion of projects of this stamp. All too often either the orchestration is a bland and dispensible backdrop for the improvisers, or looked at the other way, the improvisers are therre to add some figure and detail to a fairly dull orchestral conception. The miracle of "Transformations" is that Emery has managed to create a strong musical architecture and a context for improvisation. […] Arranged in five connected sections with three interludes, “Transformations” is the pinnacle of Emery’s career so far, a work of real depth and resonance and one which repays frequent hearings. Under Emilio Pomarico, the Klangforum Wien plays with confident gusto and precision. The set is rounded out by a sequence of quartets on which Peter Herbert is the additional soloist. “Down Home Tone Poem” and “Bird’s Nest” are further interesting reflections an what jazz is about in the 21st century. A perfect match of artist and label.”

Cuadernos de Jazz,  Nº 77 (5 stars)    
By Ángel Gómez Aparicio

"There has always been a chamber music element in play in the jazz practiced by James Emery either in the String Trio of New York or in his own groups like Iliad Quartet, his quintet and sextet. In any of those settings he has looked for that lark that is the combination of a sophisticated compositional style and an equally sophisticated sense of improvisation, something that he lead him to try ensembles that allowed him to work densely contrapuntal pieces with great structural designs. The foundations for this composer to jump into orchestral composition have already been there for years, the only thing lacking was the so rare funds destined to make jazz enterprises of this calibre come to fruition, something more common in European labels than in their American counterpart.

Franz Koglmann is not new to these considerations and as his label housed last year the debut of  James Emery’s colleague in String Trio of New York John Lindberg into the realms of string quintet compositions, this year launches the bold Transformations. And not only that, its performance counts with one of the major and more selective ensembles of contemporary academic music, Klangforum Wien. James Emery’s score doesn’t belong to the world of heavy commissions of the contemporary music scene and the distinctive sound and procedures of previous pieces are easily discernible to any familiar with his work. Subtitled Music for 3 Improvisers and Orchestra, the score has a richly delineated melodic content and its five movements separated by three interludes are drawn with materials and a harmonic conception that never feels arcane or difficult. Having big jazz names as the three improvisers, the guitar player, Franz Koglmann and Tony Coe, it is a good thing to notice in this work that shares many Third Stream features that no clear cut distribution of jazz and non-jazz element is destined to the soloist and the ensemble. Woven without separations, all the score is jazz with pluses showing no inclination to focus all on the improvisers. The attention of the listener is captured by the rich tapestry of tones with astonishing moments as the joyful and crystal clear second movement, The Flow Below (a title that points to one of the aspects that makes Emery’s music so rewarding), that brings to mind Gunther Schuller, and, in its third movement, In a Myth, the gradations of André Hodeir. Everything is painted with colours related to American music like the romantic details in the strings of In a Myth, the blues in the second interlude or the optimistic air of the flutes of the second movement. There are striking solos, like Emery’s or the simultaneous ones performed by Koglmann and Coe in the last part of the composition, but it is the swift and clear movement of the whole, ensemble and soloists, that catches the attention of the listener makes exemplary this work. 

The almost forty minutes of this score come together with four cuts in quartet, being really affecting Down Home Tone Poem, a composition with a certain rural air that sometimes appear in Emery’s compositions. They are not a simple filling of the CD capacity, they share withTransformations a same way of being constructed and sounding. This is an album that after Lovano and Schuller’s Rush Hour and a big part of Koglmann’s work give a new twist to what can be considered Third Stream (still one of the frontiers for every ambitious jazz composer). Here it sounds, alive, flexible, rich and nourishing for the future."

Signal To Noise
By Jason Bivins

"A context old and a context new for the remarkable James Emery, the now all-acoustic guitarist with the frightening chops, nimble imagination and compositional wanderlust. On Transformations, Emery does reinvent himself in a way be enlarging his canvas well beyond its previous dimensions and writing for the large ensemble Klangforum Wien. Those who’ve followed Emery over his last few years may be surprised, though it is marked by the same idiomatic mix he prefers, blending Copland-like fanfares with ice-cool string or brass settings (including the occasional Messiaen-like flourish) as well as a healthy dose of jazz-related rhythms. Klangforum is dominated by a vast number of reed, string and brass instruments, though it is the resourceful percussionist Lukas Schiske who keeps things moving. The multi-part "Music For 3 Improvisers and Orchestra" – totaling 40 minutes or so – explores a wide range of textures, colors and devices using everything from full orchestra to lone vibraphonist. Although not technically a concerto, the piece features several instrumental spotlights for Emery, Tony Coe’s tenor or clarinet, and Franz Koglmann’s flugelhorn. It’s extremely dense writing, never really sitting still for too long, and at times the number of idea in a single movement becomes dizzying (…) the piece has a formal logic which reveals new details with each listen."

By Nils Jacobson

"Something about orchestrated jazz makes it an intellectualized endeavor, and James Emery's Transformations exemplifies this rule as much as Gunther Schuller or any other members of the Third Stream. The guitarist and composer takes advantage of the rich sonic spectrum provided by the 22-member Klangforum Wien orchestra to complement his jazz quartet, represented by the five- movement "Transformations" suite and five subsequent pieces respectively. The foursome comprises Emery alongside saxophonist Tony Coe, flugelhorn player (and Between the Lines frequent flyer) Franz Koglmann, and bassist Peter Herbert (only on the five pieces at the end).

That's a more than competent group which feels very comfortable within this context, especially during open improvisation and extended solos. Regardless, this is not easy listening. You better pay attention.
James Emery invested these compositions with old world arrangements that emphasize harmonic progression with a healthy but measured portion of dissonance. Emery's (acoustic) guitar playing ranges from open support to ecstatic adventure. In cases like "Interlude #1" he showcases his virtuosity, always forward-looking and quite often ballistic. Tony Coe tends toward a feeling of welcome, particularly when he picks up the clarinet, and Franz Koglmann draws his usual warm legato lines.
Depending on your orientation, you'll probably prefer either the full-bodied orchestral portions or the pared-down quartet pieces. My own preference is the latter, where there's a greater sense of the unexpected, embodied by an expanding and contracting approach to time. It feels more spontaneous and personal, though obviously the orchestral composition is an avowedly explicit statement by Emery and as such represents his singular vision.

But regardless of what you bring to the music, there's a wealth of cleverness, lyricism, and inspired improvisation on Transformations. Listen carefully and you'll have a chance to peel apart the many layers that make up this whole. It's certainly no simple matter." 

All Music Guide
By Steven Loewy

"This is no doubt a remarkable album, and if not, then at least a wondrous or perhaps curious one. It showcases the rapidly developing skills of guitarist and composer James Emery, whose career has traversed a not altogether straight line from the pure avant-garde of his early years to this highly detailed third stream symphonic work that incorporates a light (though not unserious) touch that defies categorization. The first eight tracks are part of Emery's suite entitled "Transformations (Music for 3 Improvisers and Orchestra)," the three soloists being Emery and Between the Lines regulars Tony Coe (saxophone and clarinet) and Franz Koglmann (flügelhorn). The compositions are the sort of nimble, though intricate, pieces sometimes explored by classical composers such as Lucas Foss, with the emphasis on the written note, punctuated by "Interludes" that provide moments of contemplative free improvisation. The final five selections are grouped together under the heading "4 Quartets," and include the three soloists plus bassist Peter Herbert in largely uninhibited, though nonetheless "cool" settings that are probably more consistent with what the listener might have expected from Emery at this stage in his career. The revolutionary part of the recording and that most likely to be spoken about and debated is, of course, the symphonic section. Perhaps to the composer's credit, it is also the portion that is most difficult to evaluate, for even more than most music of the third stream, it does not fit easily in any genre. Is it jazz? Well, not exactly, and certainly the non-improvised "Movements" are not. Is it classical music? To be sure, substantial portions of it are, but as strictly classical music it is unlikely to be judged as extraordinary. However, the blend and the bending of genres through a lens unique to the composer are intriguing, and whether Emery has produced a work that will stand over time, well, only time will tell. There are, though, enough strong segments featuring Koglmann, Emery, and Coe that their admirers might wish to explore them in this slightly different context."