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Borah Bergman: The River of Sounds

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Every now and then, the inadequacy of language to describe a musical performance fairly well smacks you upside the head-especially when the performance in question is a free improvisation. In the case of pianist Borah Bergman’s The River of Sounds, that difficulty is all the more ironic because Bergman suggests there is a storyline underpinning the tumultuous session with German trombonist Conny Bauer and microtonal electric violinist Mat Maneri. He supplies a brief mystery story in the CD booklet; according to Steve Lake’s notes, Bergman hears The River of Sounds as an “opera,” so presumably that story is the work’s libretto.

The aqueous album title is certainly appropriate; the music eddies, pools, rushes and tumbles like a river. Beyond that, however, the storyline is oblique. The long opening track, “Jim,” follows the classic arc form of spontaneous improvisation: It starts slowly and quietly as the players circle warily and test each other, builds inexorably in volume and passion, reaches a sudden climax and dissipates into quiet resolve, punctuated by clocklike chiming from Bergman. It then builds in intensity once again, ending with a chaotic blast.

The other long piece, “Spindell Kresge,” is a dazzling showcase for Bergman’s fabled virtuosity and ambidexterity. He introduces a demented little waltz, chases it up the keyboard, crashes into a wall, tumbles down and lands with another crash, where he slowly recovers, brushes himself off and then nervously paces. Bergman’s restless energy evokes anxiety, even madness; his brittle stride in the title track sounds like a player piano suffering a nervous breakdown after playing one Nancarrow study too many.

Bauer and Maneri, masterful musicians both, do their best to keep up with Bergman, but it’s hard to register any meaningful interplay in the more tumultuous passages. Maneri in particular, though capable of projecting loudly with his electric instrument, is a musician best heard in more sensitive surroundings. The possibilities are hinted at in the all-too-brief “The Blond Woman,” in which Maneri’s whispers blend with Bergman’s carefully selected sustained notes with delicate intimacy. When its three minutes are up, you wish the woman could have played a larger role in Bergman’s story.