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Armen Donelian: Quartet Language

There are four near-virtuoso players on Quartet Language, and while there is much to enjoy on this live CD from a 1992 date, I have mixed feelings about pianist-leader Armen Donelian. There’s an elusive quality about his solos, which mount grand structures on small, even fragmentary phrases-an overstatement of understatement. For all his speed and busyness, his touch is diamond-hard, his articulation bright, and his expansive developments sometimes include layers of contrary rhythms, waves of sequences and ideas that tumbling the length of the keyboard (actually, these sound like hammy set pieces). Too often he hints at lyricism rather than actually becoming lyrical. But hear how a cell motive grows into a line and acquires energy in his long solo on “The Germ”-it’s quite an achievement. Even though the songs Donelian composes have chord changes, they’re elusive, too, especially “Jabberwackey” and “The Germ,” with their passages in odd meters. A sort of exception is “Mexico,” which sounds like a wistful Carla Bley song.

By contrast, although alto saxophonist Thomas Chapin is frequently disorderly, he’s full of melodic ideas. He has a hard, forceful sound reminiscent of Jackie McLean without the sharp-flat edges, and he has a special affinity for McLean-like phrasing. This eclectic player can evoke “hot” stylists, among them Eric Dolphy, Ornette Coleman and even Evan Parker’s staccato horn-spits. He plays a lot of repetitive passages, yet in general his music is thrilling. Most exciting of all, he explodes into the otherwise dreary “Brood Mood” with wild, freewheeling lines outside the chord changes. Calvin Hill, who plays a highly ornamented solo in “Mexico,” is the bassist, and Jeff Williams is the colorful yet discreet drummer.

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