Kui Dong, Larry Polansky, Christian Wolff
“You hear a sound and move forward with it if it suits you,” elucidates composer and pianist Kui Dong. “If the silence suits you, continue it, and expand it.” Dong is speaking of the ever-fascinating relationship between improvisation and composition, but she might as well be describing the opening moments of Trio, the new disc of group improvisations that Henceforth Records is very proud to release. Trio is the long-standing improvising unit of Dartmouth composers Kui Dong, Christian Wolff and Larry Polansky; they have crafted a disc of singular beauty, huge contrast and immense power.
The word “crafted” is almost inappropriate, as no discussion concerning the music took place before the tape rolled. All three members of the group are adamant that freedom was at the heart of each interaction, and yet, the perception of craft and structure are unavoidable as these long-form excursions unfold. The first track’s opening moments demonstrate the divergent paths these three creators might follow, a preparatory high-register utterance followed by a thunderous rumble from the piano’s innards, topped by a few more stratospheric squeaks. As Wolff and Dong dialogue at these tangentially related purposes, evoking transregistral orchestras from their respective instruments, Polansky lets a single tone float, swell and fade, then another, and another as the others approach silence. These are not negations, far from it. Rather, they are gestures indicative of the freedom veteran improvisers achieve after long friendship and collaboration.
Polansky and Wolff have been involved in numerous and diverse improvisational situations, but Dong’s background was somewhat different. “I had never improvised before joining Larry and Christian,” admits Dong, “so this was quite a challenge for me.” Wolff remembers the trio’s 1997 inception a bit differently. “Kui took to improv like a duck to water,” he smiles. “She’s an excellent pianist, so the whole process was quite natural for her after some initial misgivings.” Soon after Dong joined the Dartmouth faculty, the three musicians began to meet weekly, on what might be described as a lark at first but eventually playing concerts and holding residencies in several countries. The experience impacted Dong’s view of the driving forces behind composition. “I’ve come to believe that the fundamental impulses governing improvisation and composition are the same, even if the resulting languages are different.” Polansky concurs, adding a bit of spice to the discussion. “I just don’t have as firm a set of definitions for those terms as people might want me to have. I’ll give you an analogy. In this group, I might pick up my guitar and play, or I might pick up my mandolin and play. There will be obvious differences, but there will also be similarities. There are historical suggestions, physical constraints and musical considerations, just as there are in composition. Each situation will encourage, discourage and suggest its own results.”
Perhaps Christian Wolff sums up the attitudes of all three musicians regarding the constant flux of playing and listening that shape every moment of Trio’s debut album. “It’s really very simple,” muses Wolff. “I just tap into the group’s energy, and that determines what I do next. If the energy level is high, I’m often tempted to go my own way for a while, in parallel with what Kui and Larry are doing. When energy is at a lower level, I find myself listening and responding in the moment, each action and response governing the way I engage the next moment.” Wolff has encapsulated the dynamic essence of this music, the heart of those conflicting forces which drive it forward and cause those moments of reflection that frame the roaring energies that can erupt without warning. With the inevitability of a change of season, the two pianos spark and joust in rapid-fire exaltation, while Polansky blasts forth staggering string pyrotechnics that blaze trails somewhere between the translucent and trans-spectral leaps and pointillisms of Derek Bailey and the heavy distortions and miraculous sustains of Japanese firebrand Masayuki Takayanagi. Just as it seems that the combined energy may become unbearable, calm gradually ensues and space returns.
In unleashing these group improvisations, these three veterans continue the noble traditions pioneered by improvisers as diverse as Ornette Coleman and AMM, in which Wolff has played an intermittent role. Yet, they sound like no one before them as their distinct approaches converge and diverge in the service of excellent music-making.