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Janel Leppin: Ensemble Volcanic Ash (Cuneiform)

A review of the majestic and occasionally abrasive release from the cellist, composer, arranger, and singer

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Janel Leppin: Ensemble Volcanic Ash (Cuneiform)
The cover of Ensemble Volcanic Ash by Janel Leppin

Janel Leppin is a picture of versatility. Not only has she been a pillar of Washington, D.C.’s creative music community for the last 20 years, but the cellist, composer, arranger, and singer has made significant marks in other scenes as well. She’s contributed cello arrangements to the Messthetics, played with punk outfit Priests, and records art-pop under the Mellow Diamond moniker.

Leppin leans into a jazz-centric vision on the majestic and occasionally abrasive Ensemble Volcanic Ash, which affirms her place as a boundless musician who constantly leaves the listener intrigued. It’s a puzzle in which jazz, chamber music, contemporary classical, and punk seamlessly coalesce with bracing results. 

Ensemble Volcanic Ash, comprising Leppin, bassist Luke Stewart, harpist Kim Sator, guitarist Anthony Pirog, alto saxophonist Sarah Hughes, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, and drummer Larry Ferguson, exquisitely captures strings-driven melody, harmony, and noise at a furious clip. They both tug at the heartstrings and bust ears.

Leppin’s shimmering yet melancholy cello opens on a classical note on “Children of the Water,” setting a charged tone. “Woven Forest” is uplifting in a Coltrane-esque sense before putting the pedal to the metal at the halfway point, in which Pirog (also of the Messthetics, and Leppin’s husband and frequent collaborator) sprays heavy doses of guitar skronk. The nine-minute epic establishes Leppin as clear leader of this mighty troupe, her bows, scrapes, and clatter illuminating a wide range of soul-baring emotions while her band serves as a rhythmic beacon of light. Ensemble Volcanic Ash runs the gamut of the meditative (“Her Hand Is His Score”), the spiritual-jazzy (“Clarity”), and the punkish freakout (“She Had Synesthesia”) with near-effortless command on its dazzling debut.

Learn more about Ensemble Volcanic Ash on Amazon.