The southern California jazz/new music scene may be something of a best-kept secret in the larger musical world, but independent labels such as Nine Winds and more recently Cryptogramophone have served to document the amazing and sometimes unique blends of cultures and musical genres that define it. The four musicians who collaborate in Cloud Plate had never played together as a quartet, but they had all played locally in various other combinations and are consequently quite familiar with each other's work. When they sat down for this recording session, without benefit of prior rehearsals, an intuitive connection and sense of purpose were already present, and this CD eloquently speaks to that fact. The music itself almost beggars description; it is taut, mysterious, stately, and often arresting. Only a few of the eight pieces have anything resembling a steady rhythmic pulse, and percussionist Alex Cline is much more about texture and color than mere timekeeping. His tirelessly inventive energy is channeled into a complex mixture of skittering cymbals, rimshot bursts, whispering brushes, delicate bells/gongs, and deep bass drum bombs. Guitarist G.E. Stinson is a once-upon-a-time founding member of the highly successful new age/ethnic group Shadowfax, but in the years since he has left that group (and sensibility), he has headed quite purposefully into the more rarefied air of free improvisation, utilizing implements and effects (as they are called on this CD) -- to the extent that the sounds he produces are not always readily associated with a guitar or any other recognizable musical instrument. A third member of the group, Miya Masaoka, plays a koto. Because she is equally at home with Japanese folk and classical music, contemporary jazz, and cutting-edge new music experimentation, she has been very much in demand as a guest musician and has appeared with Fred Frith, Pharoah Sanders, Steve Coleman, and the Rova Saxophone Quartet, among others. She is perhaps the most identifiable source of string sounds, although like Stinson she is not shy about electronic enhancements and can produce marvelously deep, buzzing drones on her instrument. The fourth group member, vocalist Kaoru, delivers wordless (or perhaps Japanese-language) vocals, often in a small, ghostly voice but occasionally in a declamatory, almost operatic style. She also contributes with percussion, effects, and sound toys.
Cline, who was in charge of post-production editing, deliberately shaped the final selections on the CD to favor, in his words, "the subtle, spacious side of things," although one long piece, "Assisted Collapse," slowly and relentless builds to a roaring, whirling climax. Another somewhat anomalous track, "Robot Mudra," injects a bit of musical mischief (as well as an overtly techno element) by introducing a robotic, processed chant from Kaoru, followed by a steady mechanical pulse, probably from one of Stinson's effects boxes, which Cline quietly embellishes, creating an unexpected but delightful groove. Elsewhere, pieces such as "Ions," "Mountain," and "Cloud" evoke that spacious quality to which Cline refers, although the pieces are never merely pretty and only occasionally ambient in the oceanic sense. (The closing minutes of the haunting "Visual Drift" perhaps come closest to conventional ambience, although even here, Kaoru's wordless, looped chirping maintains a sense of drama.) In spite of the overall sonic spaciousness, a great deal is happening in each piece, but it is seldom wild and chaotic in the manner of free jazz -- except perhaps for portions of the more aggressive "Assisted Collapse." When dispensing praise, it is tempting to single out Cline's magnificent percussion, which ranges from the rolling boil of an Elvin Jones or even Rashied Ali to the austere, precise punctuation of a single Chinese gong. But there are really no stars in this show -- no leaders and no followers -- which is all the more remarkable considering the totally spontaneous, improvised nature of the music. This is a CD like no other, and it offers unparalleled interactive music-making. There is a depth and richness to this music that is magic, pure and simple.