Normal Garden is composer Christophe Schweizer's septet, which lives on the border between inside and outside, between changes, modes and free jazz. The difference is that this 2002 little big band is centered not on improvisation but upon composition. Schweizer composes lines that keep moving-no repeats-with lots of interludes, solo intros and backgrounds. Nothing ends as it starts (that's good), but the five pieces on Physique don't quite evolve, either. The range of pastel orchestra colors is narrow, with no dramatic contrasts of dynamics or harmony to disturb his chromatic lines. Trouble is, Schweizer's composing, for all his odd linear and harmonic movement, is not really satisfying; the joined fragments of "Atlas," for example, yield effects rather than melodies. Some pieces are program music, and the slow, dreary "Rain" and "Translucence" are almost interchangeable.
Solos are usually short. Schweizer plays in a post-Grachan Moncur III style, while tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin suggests mid-'60s Wayne Shorter. Alexander Sipiagin plays nice, simplified bop trumpet. Eric Rasmussen plays alto sax with a West Coast sound-no intensity and meandering phrases. I quite like the unamplified sound of Johannes Weidenmueller's bass; his lines dance when he and drummer Billy Hart escape the confines of the scores, and I wish this CD had more passages like Hart's smoking accompaniment to Sipiagin in "Oscillation." Sadistic pianist Ethan Iverson compulsively sequences motives, but he is also especially good at developing lines and shaping solos. In fact, there's attractive interplay of composed and solo lines; these musicians' recurring feeling for form is one of the album's strengths. Other virtues include the cheerful collective improvisation in "Atlas" and in fact most of "Pentagram," which has Schweizer's most active writing.
Altogether, Physique is a mixed bag, but as composer Schweizer is definitely discovering a personal voice.