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Aaron Novik: Rotterdam/Berlin (Avant LaGuardia)

A review of the second and third of five suites from the clarinetist

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Aaron Novik, Rotterdam
The cover of Rotterdam by Aaron Novik

Rotterdam and Berlin are the second and third of five suites clarinetist Aaron Novik has released in 2019, comprising music he’s developed over the past few years and umpteen projects. These installments—both specifically inspired by Novik’s European adventures in summer 2014—come in at 17 and 28 minutes, respectively. To say they’re worth your time is not to say much. As it happens, though, that can’t be said: One is too short, and the other too long.

Rotterdam is the too-short one, and it’s maddening. There is no improvisation on its six tracks; that fact, along with its instrumentation (Novik’s clarinet, Kasey Knudsen’s sax, Marie Abe’s accordion, Dina Maccabee’s violin, Lisa Mezzacappa’s bass, and Jamie Moore’s drums), makes it closer to contemporary chamber music than jazz. But it doesn’t work as chamber music either. There are themes but no development, and precious little variation; just short melodic statements and frankly bland passagework to pad them out. (The closing “Piano” is barely even a statement, just some long, tenuously connected notes over a drone.)

The pieces would have more effect as quick-bite platforms for improvisation. That’s the most frustrating part: The passagework—Novik, Knudsen, and Maccabee’s polyphony on “Garden,” Knudsen’s and Abe’s ostinati on “Bike”—marks plain as day where improvised solos could and should go, but they never arrive.

Aaron Novik, Berlin
The cover of Berlin by Aaron Novik

Berlin removes even the element of short melody. Except for the brief opener “Garnelen” and its even briefer closing reprise (which, frantic and atonal as they are, have surprising hooks), it’s a segue-filled collection of rhythmic motifs and musique concrète. Novik and Mezzacappa are now joined by oboist/English-hornist Kyle Bruckmann, cellist Crystal Pascucci, and “found object” percussionist Jordan Glenn. But although they find some intriguing sounds, they quickly exhaust the intrigue. The delicately pinging strings of “Skittering” hold perhaps 20 seconds of interest; they go on for three minutes. “Berlin” is a rhythmic motif that never goes anywhere, “Voslauer” is grating strings and groaning reeds that never go anywhere, and “Kreuzberg” combines the two. Novik and company finally get it right on the aptly named “Hitting,” on which Pascucci and Mezzacappa explore with their bows over an infectious rhythm. If Berlin had just been “Garnelen,” “Hitting,” and “Garnelen (Reprise),” Novik might really be on his way to something.

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Check the price of Berlin on Amazon!

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Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.