Brooklyn Rider is a string quartet based in Brooklyn led by violinist Johnny Gandelsman and including violinist Colin and cellist Eric Jacobsen who are among the founder-brothers of the orchestra known as the Knights; the group is filled out by violist Nicholas Cords. Passport is Brooklyn Rider's debut album and also the first issue on Gandelsman's label In a Circle Records, named after a concert series Gandelsman curated beginning in 2003. Brooklyn Rider is a young quartet that likes to jam, or at least it likes to sound like it's jamming, even if it's from a written score. Passport is a very relaxed, informal kind of listening experience that stands apart from typical string quartet fare, whether you consider "typical" to be the Emerson String Quartet playing core Western literature or what the Turtle Island String Quartet does. Recorded at the Orchard studio in the upstate town of New Paltz, NY, the CD has a "hot" sound quality that is a little constricting to the tone of the instruments and takes some getting used to, but ultimately it assumes more of a pop, "underground" ambience that sounds good for what Brooklyn Rider is trying to do. The first third of the program consists of arrangements of pieces by legendary Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet; this gives Brooklyn Rider a bit of a chance to stretch out into some exotic, modal territory that is nevertheless melodic in feel and evocative in tone. The centerpiece of the album is its best attribute, Colin Jacobsen's own strongly rhythmic Brooklesca, which has a lightly rock & roll feel to some sections of it, but is also clearly rooted in a "big city" kind of modernism with some elements of minimalism and jazz tipped in for good measure. Brooklesca is a compelling listen that will keep you returning and is formally grounded in a modified Western-styled development strategy that keeps you glued to its forward progression; it never seems unfocused or discursive and unfolds very naturally.
Ljova's two pieces fill out the set, and the second of these, Crosstown, is the more effective of the two and makes for a nice closer. For those interested in contemporary music, it's hard not to recommend Brooklyn Rider's Passport too highly; it is a ticket to parts unknown, but not to the extent that it leaves the traveler behind. On the contrary, it is a highly compelling and original statement that bodes well for the continuing relevance of the string quartet and demonstrates that medium's expressive and rhythmic capabilities are far from exhausted. Good work, men!