The Kandinsky Effect

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Somnambulist Review

by Dave Lynch

The first minute of "Copalchi Distress Signal," the opening track on 2015's Somnambulist, could lead unsuspecting listeners to anticipate that the Kandinsky Effect are about to deliver a full album of avant-leaning, rhythmically charged electronica, as a deep synthy bassline buzzes beneath a tolling bell-like tone and sharp bits of electronic percussion pepper the stereo field. But soon these sounds morph into the driving trio of saxophonist Warren Walker, bassist Gael Petrina, and drummer Caleb Dolister, who -- as on their 2013 Cuneiform label debut, Synesthesia -- pull electronica into a cutting-edge meld retaining the spirit of creative jazz at its heart. On this second Cuneiform outing, the Kandinsky Effect remain focused and even economical on 12 tunes in the three- to five-minute range; there is never a sense of aimlessness or infatuation with electronic tones and timbres for their own sake, and the group is always purposeful, using technology to expand rather than overwhelm its sonic palette. Sometimes effects create atmospheric ambient coloration: the deeply reverberant treatments of Walker's horn-like lines in "Petit Loup" have antecedents in Mark Isham's appearances with David Torn and David Sylvian back in the '80s, while the languorously paced and resonant "Sunbathing Manatee" could serve as a 21st century jazz counterpart to a Brian Eno imaginary soundtrack miniature from roughly the same era. Yet Somnambulist is most notable for the bandmembers' active engagement with electronics both compositionally and improvisationally, rather than their use of ambient effects as a mere backdrop.

During the title track penned by Walker, the endings of the saxophonist's phrases leave moments for wave forms to sweep in, as if from deep space transmissions, filling the gaps between his notes as Petrina and Dolister drive the tune along with a jumping, shifting rhythm. The irregular pulse of "Koala"'s theme is carried into Walker's improvisation, opening up more spaces for reverberating effects between the saxophonist's notes, while the funked-up rat-a-tat of "Trits" finds Walker playful in a near call-and-response with his own echo. Elsewhere, the trio's instruments freely shape-shift. Petrina begins "Flips" with a dirty distorted sound as Dolister locks in with an emphatic beat layered over a background shuffle, but as Walker's sax tone leaps abruptly from organic to sharply buzzing for a freewheeling, nearly aggressive solo, the bassist transitions from clean multiple-string harmonic and melodic plucking to a deep pulsing throb. Throughout, Dolister's precise yet forceful timekeeping is perfect for the Kandinsky Effect's electro-acoustic mélange -- he's an inventive beatmaker as easily as jazz-based skinsman -- although the drummer's subdued clatter in "Annabelle Chases a Bug" nicely showcases his roiling improvisational side. Ultimately, however, the trio proves fully capable of establishing an intended mood with comparatively subtle electronic touches, as in "Taghzout," penned by Walker upon witnessing mass animal slaughter during the Islamic Eid al-Adha in Morocco. Darkly shaded and elegiac, the track is a uniquely personal reflection of its composer's psychological response to a festival that turned the village streets into a bloody abattoir.

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