The term "New York downtown jazz" is sometimes frowned upon by its practitioners, who tend to feel stylistically pigeonholed by the description and also linked to a certain club south of Canal Street, about which many feel ambivalent at best. There might be a number of reasons for these members of the New York creative music community to roll their eyes at yet another reference to "downtowners" (not the least of which being that many of them live in Brooklyn), but they must at least acknowledge that the downtown scene is usually described in positive terms -- edgy, progressive, boundary-stretching, adventurous, non-idiomatic -- in contrast to the Midtown scene surrounding Wynton Marsalis and Lincoln Center, which, while credited with keeping the flame of classic modern jazz alive in America, has also been accused of a certain stodgy, retro, parochial, and limited sensibility in today's current, all-encompassing world of jazz and creative improvisation. Well, anyone interested in investigating all that is fine about New York downtown jazz -- and how it contrasts with the Midtown stuff -- should start right here. Possessing all the positive attributes referenced above, Ned Rothenberg's Power Lines is an absolute classic that no other downtown CD -- by John Zorn, Dave Douglas, or anybody else well-known or obscure -- has ever topped. It's not surprising that Power Lines is a quintessential downtown release, since the musicians comprising alto saxophonist and bass clarinetist Rothenberg's nonet are pretty much at the top of the A list of downtown musicians. Cellist Erik Friedlander, violinist Mark Feldman, bassist Mark Dresser, and drummer Michael Sarin have all been members of the Dave Douglas String Group, and trumpeter Douglas is here as well; Friedlander and Feldman can also be heard performing with Zorn's Masada and Bar Kokhba projects. Trombonist Josh Roseman is featured on recordings by the Dave Douglas Sextet and Uri Caine. The band is completed by violist Ruth Siegler, baritone saxophonist and bass clarinetist Kenny Berger, and, on two tracks, acclaimed world music veteran Glen Velez on frame drums.
Power Lines is among the earthiest, most soulful, and grooving CDs that anybody from the downtown crowd has ever released. Thanks for this must go to Rothenberg, who has an uncanny ability to compose and arrange music that hits the listener with nearly equal emphasis in all the main places that it can be felt -- the body, heart, and head. Some downtowners have been accused of being overly cerebral, but certainly not Rothenberg, and certainly not here. Rothenberg's sense of earthy funk and soul is akin to another altoist from the same community, Tim Berne, although with his circular breathing abilities, Rothenberg is more likely to shape his phrases into endlessly evolving ostinatos à la Evan Parker. And, with the Power Lines ensemble in particular, Rothenberg favors structures more rooted in world fusion, with churning and rolling percussion, multi-layered polyphony, and persistent yet odd-metered grooves. The tracks tend to be lengthy, including "In the Rotation" at over 21 minutes long, but the music stays riveting from the opening fanfare of "Hildago" to the final blast of "In the Rotation" due to the varied structures, infectious circular rhythms, boldly expressive soloing, and overall kaleidoscopic sounds. The music is at its most chamberesque during "Strange Sarabande," but even then the string quartet's romantic flourishes are counterbalanced with low drones, vamps, and pizzicato pluckings that root the piece in deep and resonant ground. "Bellhop Vontz" is actually a reworking of "Fits and Starts" from Real and Imagined Time by Rothenberg's Double Band. Indeed proceeding via fits and starts, the piece is uncanny in how thoroughly improvised it can often seem, and yet even passages that seem completely "of the moment" reveal themselves to be part of the score when the two versions are heard side by side. "In the Rotation" is nothing short of a masterpiece, with its polyrhythmic cartwheels and burrowing groove, its torrid solos, and its massed string, horn, and reed embellishments, all of which coalesce in an absolutely thrilling crescendo at the album's close. Power Lines is a pinnacle of New York downtown music. Next time you read critics or hear fans rave enthusiastically about the downtown scene -- and hey, you just did -- find this CD and hear what all the fuss is about.