Dan Plonsey

Music of el Cerrito, Vol. 2

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AllMusic Review by Eugene Chadbourne

The essence of the Daniel Popsicle orchestra's familiarity is that individual components are not instantly recognizable -- in that this large ensemble of musicians from assorted spots around San Francisco Bay is like a group of trick-or-treaters arriving at your door. The individual answering the doorbell, to carry the analogy further, could be either a creative orchestra buff or someone that has never heard avant-garde music played by lots of people at once. In both cases a similar reaction is evoked: to be precise, the question "Who the hell is this?"

The direction the group's maestro takes on this particular venture may well surprise listeners who have heard other, supposedly similar large group efforts. What Dan Plonsey has identified as "Volume 2A" in this series may need no further recommendation, though, than to establish that several people who might normally run and hide at the mention of avant-garde jazz, especially involving large groups of people, listened to this and declared immediate affection for parts of it. As on the less interesting, shorter "Concerto for Electric Guitar and Toy Orchestra" released during roughly the same period, Plonsey had found a way to break through the austere surface of this genre that, at times, involves extremely catchy melodies and rhythms.

This CD collects what is described in the liner notes as the first part of "a set of typically massive pieces" entitled "The Kingdoms." Stroking the brow of the experienced listener, the legacy of ensembles such as this can said to be the big bands of vintage jazz, which even -- or perhaps as a result of -- their dominating public popularity were hotbeds of experimentation in terms of instrumentation and stylistic texture. In eras when jazz became a minority taste and large ensembles the sad sack of the industry, a venture such as this inevitably comes down to who can be lured over to your garage or basement for a few rehearsals.

Once the recording process is included, the possibilities of what someone might wind up hearing

when they audit this, or any other large ensemble recording of its type, varies. Clifford Thornton's "The Gardens of Harlem" comes to mind; present a vision as endless as this sentence. There is no such thing as a normal instrumentation for these ensembles, and recordings of them immediately further blur points of identification. The initial experience of Daniel Popsicle becomes a process, then, of figuring out why it sounds the way it does and where that sound is coming from.

Only an ensemble sound that is attractive in a major way will stimulate and nurture this amount of interest, and what a sound this is, seemingly aged by what sounds like just the right amount of practice and as busy with detail as a vista of changing leaves. The collection of 17-different sections for the most part dwells on interlocking melodies which swagger happily, a parade but not a military one. Plonsey is influenced by Anthony Braxton; this he would not deny, and Braxton's series of "Ghost Trance" pieces may have had an impact on this recording -- although it could also be said that this sounds like music influenced by a description of the "Ghost Trance" works rather than any one of them in particular.

About 40 minutes into the CD the developments become more about sound than pomp worth whistling, something that had been expected all along considering the norms of the West Coast jazz scene. By then extemporized variations from trombones and terrific utilization of a tight, concise string section have become part of the comfort zone, as have Plonsey's clever touches with unexpected instruments such as harmonica and saz. Also by then, some of the novice listeners have fled, overwhelmed by either the unrelenting zeal with which this material is delivered or a slight imperfection in the nature of the listening device being used (i.e. no volume control.) The sort of phenomena that would normally drive such a listener away -- individual or small group "breakdowns" in which players demonstrate all the noise they can muster from their instrument -- never really happen on this set, and furthermore are not missed.