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Keith Yaun Quartet: Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen

Jazz history is peppered with well-intentioned attempts to improvise on classical music, from the Modern Jazz Quartet’s elegant spin on Bach to pianist Uri Caine’s recent po-mo pummeling of Mahler. The highly idiosyncratic work of the great French composer Olivier Messiaen-with its emphasis on the subtleties of duration and attack-is an altogether different can of worms, but guitarist Keith Yaun has succeeded masterfully on Amen: Improvisations of Messiaen. As the title makes plain, Yaun and his cohorts don’t perform the five pieces as they appear on paper, but utilize them as remarkable springboards for improvisation.

The leader’s open-minded arrangements nicely adapt music originally written for two pianos, piano and voice, and organ, for a quartet with two guitars, drums and violin. The music hangs in the air with a glacial beauty. Part of the credit belongs to electric baritone violinist Mat Maneri, whose sumptuous microtonality seems to suspend time, and with drummer Johnny McLellan subtle accents-levitating more than propelling-the effect is only heightened. Tiny shards of the written pieces drift in and out of an airy guitar lattice constructed by Yaun and Bern Nix-the one-time Prime Time guitarist-but more often than not it’s the evocative moods of Messiaen’s work that guides the proceedings. As potent as the compositions are, the real attraction is the stunning group interplay.

Originally Published