Bass improvisation king Barre Phillips accepted a commission to score a ballet in 1987. Naxos, or at least part of it, recorded with his quintet, is the result of that collaboration. Featuring piano, bass, saxophone, and guitars (courtesy of Jean-Marc Montera), as well as vocals by daughter Claudia, the Naxos ensemble is an entire world apart from contemporary groups that improvise. The score, consisting of loose compositional frameworks, spontaneous composition, and improvisation, is a textured, nuanced work that weaves elements of classical music and jazz together in an airy, restrained mix that allows ample room for cross-pollination and individual expression. Indeed, with musicians so well-attuned to their leader's viewpoint, it is difficult to know where one work ends and another begins and where the compositional element is scripted or is coaxed into being by collaborative effort. Claudia is a remarkable vocalist who sings by pure instinct. From wordless cascades of chant and open-throated tonalism to tight, clipped percussive expressions of sound and resonance, her presence is indispensable to this music. Phillips himself has been deeply influenced by various folk traditions and the microtonal compositional style of Joe Maneri; both are on display here, particularly in the ballet's more formal section like "MOANA," and "FAEDANT." All players carefully wind around one another to create a conical mass of sound that can easily be either extrapolated from or expanded upon. The non-ballet works are marked by their involvement, on a smaller scale, with tonal exploration and Claudia's vocal insinuations of timbral counterpoint. Naxos is a phenomenal work, one that can be heard in a number of different settings and still offer delight, surprise, and occasionally even astonishment.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek