Spooky Actions' first classical-based album, Music of Webern, treated the Austrian serialist to clever transcriptions and striking improvisations using John Gunther's winds and Bruce Arnold's processed electric guitar. Now Spooky Actions has returned to classical with Early Music, a tour of the many centuries before Europeans got that whole diatonic harmony thing figured out. Just like Webern, this early music poses plenty of tricky challenges for modern jazzmen; the difference between the two discs is that Spooky Actions surmounts none of these challenges on Early Music.
The only real interest on any of these tracks comes from the haunting, poetic melodies themselves. Gunther, Arnold and percussionist Kirk Driscoll play those melodies with much less rhythmic freedom than early musicians themselves would have used, making everything sound like a plodding madrigal or dirge even when it is-for example, Hildegard of Bingen's ecstatic, poetic invocation of the divine. Much of this music has no harmony at all, meaning that improvisation is necessarily limited to contextless melodic noodling, a problem that the incredibly cheesy wooshing effects on some tunes do not mitigate. Playing the melody over and over and over again, as Gunther and Arnold often do, really doesn't help.
Spooky Actions' take on an eighth-century Byzantine chant stands out: They let the melody serve as a spur to funk, with bassist Mike Richmond, percussionist Kirk Driscoll and Arnold finally getting real workouts and Gunther favoring us with some aggressive jazz flute. Listening to it, one wonders why the Spooky guys thought the earnest declarations of unearned solemnity on the rest of the album should be the rule rather than the exception.