"I think there's a giant gap between improvisation and contemporary classical composition," Frank Glover notes in the promotional materials accompanying his new album Abacus. "We don't even have the words to describe the music that falls in that gap." That may be an overstatement: Works by boundary-skirting figures from Gershwin to Keith Jarrett have left us with something of a vocabulary to describe the intersection between jazz and classical (say, the Third Stream), and a host of contemporary classical composers from Cage to Zorn have incorporated some element of improvisation or chance into their work.
But point taken, and Glover explores that gap, however wide, on his new album, a concerto for his quartet Kilho (sax, bass, drums, keyboards) with orchestra. Improvised passages and what seem to be through-written sections interweave throughout a restrained, complex, somewhat emotionally distant work that's more a showcase for Glover the composer than the performer, although he certainly acquits himself as ably as any on soprano sax and clarinet. The album is comprised of three movements, the first and third four songs each, the second ("Ballerina") lasting only one track.
There's another giant gap on the record, that between the fusion-oriented Kilho and the more organic textures of the orchestra. It's fascinating to hear how Glover segues the band into arrangements so that neither keyboards nor electric bass sound out of place.
Take the first movement. "Two Shades of Green" opens in recognizably Romantic and mannered territory, a piano and soprano sax trading phrases. Then comes a wash of horns and strings, nearly overwhelming Glover's sax, which barely stays above the mix. "Lost Sumino" bides time, slowly building up to something, anything, Glover freely searching about against minimal strings, insistent and repetitive. And then we get somewhere with "Abacus," which takes a clean, pointilistic approach, a marimba and other staccato percussion evoking the click and clack of the title subject.
It's on this third track that we start to notice Kilho's rhythm section, as Jack Helsey's electric bass plunks alongside the bells and percussion. And on "Domino," it all falls down, the other Kilho members - Zach Lapidus on keyboards and Dave Scalia on drum set - showing up for the gig, each horn and string section pursuing its own idea, all building up until the foundation gives way so that Kilho can take the spotlight.
Unlike the first or third movements, one gets the feeling that the second movement, "Ballerina" is entirely through-written, particularly because we stick close to a handful of well-developed phrases and motives, repeated and emphasized, understated but emotionally evocative like the best film music.
The third movement is denser, longer and offers more opportunity for improvisation. "Lighthouse" continues in the lyrical, melody-driven direction of "Ballerina," an acoustic guitar gliding over an orchestra searching for a pitch. Thudding drums and bass mimic the sounds of industry on "Modern Times." "Salamanca" moves briefly into ecstatic territory, Glover's clarinet yearning over a soft bed of strings playing an indeterminate pitch. But Glover isn't just aiming for catharsis, and avoids both emotional highs and lows. So we leave that nigh-religious moment to plunge back into a frisky, vaguely Latin-inflected fusion. "Robot" moves back into the factory and recalls the title track in its sharp minimalism before fading out to silence.