Jazz-crossover-classical projects have a long history of failures. The Keith Yaun Quartet doesn't attempt to sound classical. Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen is the result of one man's recent passion for the music of the mystical French composer. Guitarist Yaun took some pages written for piano and voice, two pianos, or organ, and then rearranged and adapted them for two guitars, one baritone violin, and drums. Olivier Messiaen's music often sounds like a church: austere and uplifting, both imposing and profoundly human. Yaun's guideline seems to be to recreate this feeling in a free jazz context. Even the Messiaen connoisseur will need to work hard to retrace the elements of the original compositions in these improvisations: melodies are only hinted at, harmonies suggested. Lines serve as starting points; harmonic structures become a sounding room. And yet, one finds similar mysticism, similar torment. Mat Maneri's very personal micro-tonal playing on baritone violin echoes, to some extent, the composer's haunting organ phrasing. Johnny McLellan's delicate drumming punctuates some lines, and gives body to the other players' interventions. The two guitarists softly pick their strings, showing their understanding of the composer's piano writing, but never attempting to pastiche or even mimic it. Simply put, Amen: Improvisations on Messiaen is filled with beautiful uncertainty and a soft-spoken creative urge. And there is no need to know the works of Messiaen to be able to appreciate what the Keith Yaun Quartet accomplished here. Free jazz fans who like their music hot and restless should look elsewhere, but the more meditative kind will be delighted.
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AllMusic Review by François Couture