Words: Gary Rees
Unity. Diversity. Existential states neither in conflict nor in harmony with one another. By definition, one cannot exist without the other.
Consider unity and diversity as magnetic poles with a compass needle that swings between them, one way then the other. This movement between a unified musical expression and a diversity of sound and rhythm and temperament is the primal force animating Hymn to the Endless Creator, the latest Chant Records release for eXpanseplane, the musical vessel for the abundantly skilled bass player and composer, Jesse Berg.
Unity. In Hymn to the Endless Creator the bass pilots the vessel from the bottom up. You would expect this from an accomplished student of the bass. You would expect diverse styles, whether solid contemporary jazz or a preponderance of jazz fusion that is unique to eXpanseplane. You would expect offerings of bass driven electronica of a vintage only eXpanseplane can decant. In its 19 tracks, Hymn to the Endless Creator showcases a unity of sound and inspired songwriting that is solely possible through the creative genius of Berg.
Diversity. eXpanseplane is driven by melody. Melodic lines that move quickly and span notes across a wide diversity of scales in remarkable flashes of instinct and inspiration. Call this 12-tone ideation and you’ll sell eXpanseplane short. Each composition evinces a development of chords and lead lines that resonate and make their own sense, on their own terms. The exquisite melodic lines interact perfectly with Berg’s inimitable bass lines. Accompanied by acoustic drum sounds at times or by contemporary electronic drums, the diversity of arrangements eXpanseplane unfolds is impressive and clever and impactful throughout.
Diversity. eXpanseplane flirts with genres, but can only, in the end, commit to its own sound. There’s some form of electronic jazz here, but it’s really just a lovingly curated collection of sounds and ideas tastefully constructed of itself and nothing else. From contemporary beat-driven electronica, to timeless fusion with its frenetic 16th note melodies, to DrumnBass to African beats to limitless scales.
The album opens with “Ozymandias,” based on the Percy Blythe Shelley poem of that name. The track features a reading of the compact and powerful sonnet, which is a parable for hubris. Yet this opening song is no exercise in hubris. It never exceeds its mandate. Oscillating synthesizer and electric tom drums start the piece, joined immediately with the reading. Synths and beats build, pulsing in a common 4/4 time for one brief minute. At which point the pursuit of diversity begins. The bass is steady, intoning a single note, but the rhythm takes flight into odd time signatures, 6/8 or 7/8 or 13/8. It depends on where and when you get purchase on this complex beat. But for all its complexity the rhythm feels natural, neither stilted nor self-conscious. It’s a hallmark of eXpanseplane, a genius for sui generis rhythms that defy convention but carry you forward smoothly.
Berg is a bassist first. He will confide that each of his songs starts with the bass. His training and experience leave him in unquestionable command of the “rhythm section” — drums+percussion+bass – throughout Hymn to the Endless Creator. Is it a diversity or unity of talent at work here? Both. The compass needle moves to an imperative that is eXpanseplane’s alone.
As a songwriter Berg’s arrangements bring the right instruments to bear at the right time and, most interestingly, in the right time signature. A student of the bass for several years, Berg explored classical jazz and contemporary jazz as he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree with a specialization in free improvisation. (If ever we’re asked whether we actually used that stuff we learned in school, you can be sure it is absolutely true in this case.)
Diversity. eXpanseplane expertly showcases a number of instruments in various trios, quartets, quintets, etc. Several songs rely on piano, often for the conveyance of unpredictable melody, at times in unison or in counterpoint with a synth voice. Violin, guitar, flute, organ, and electric piano voices — the sound palate manifests eXpanseplane’s desire to best calibrate a chorus of voices selected for the moment. The track “Bone” illustrates the method and madness: guitar flies above electronic chord jabs, joins with an old school synth lead, and casts a web of frenetic, precise notes in eXpanseplane’s custom-built melodic scales.
“Guna” is a good example of eXpanseplane’s compositional diversity. It begins with a detuned piano voice, the sound of an old disused console piano, like the one at grandpa’s house. The piano sounds a simple progression of single notes in the mixolydian scale. When joined by drums, any possibilities of unity evaporate. Enter a polyrhythm, the piano on one beat, the drums on another. It will take tapping both feet, on different rhythms, to keep up. Mid-track the synths take over in a brusque maneuver that swaps in a more complicated melody line. Piano returns, but it’s a grand piano now, then the addition of a burble of 1s and 0s spilling from the synthesizer, underpinned by a chaotic recitation at the piano’s low end. The song has a diversity arc. It sounds archaic to start, exploring an out of fashion scale on an ancient piano, moves to the expressive fusion that rings throughout this album, goes experimental, fusing electronic with acoustic, then travels back in time to sit again at that old piano in need of tuning.
Unity. The impressive bass work on Hymn to the Endless Creator is the fundamental unifying element of this album. Several tracks show off Berg’s talent on his signature instrument: “nMn,” “Art of War,” “Bone,” “Castor,” and “Synastry”. In other tracks the bass anchors a song with minimal melodic movement, but a roadway of deep, rich tones delivered in a complex set of rhythms that are complemented or counter played in the melodic and harmonic parts.
Berg’s style derives, in so small part, from an electric jazz album he cites as a key influence: Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, with its funk and fusion ethic in the rhythm section and its fluid floral syncopated declarations of purpose. Berg also spent time overseas, playing original works in S. Korea for a time. It’s this expat experience that brought Berg to electronic composition. A talent he imported back to the U.S. and directed toward three album releases with Chant Records prior to unleashing the Hymn to the Endless Creator. All are available for perusal and purchase at Chant’s Bandcamp page.
Unity. Diversity. An oscillating vision and mission. A unified sound and expression. A diverging sublime offering from a free-thinking artist. This album, this collection of bass-first, 12-tone parables, represents the best of electronic jazz, an album to cherish for its fresh voice and singular declaration. What’s evident on review is manifest to the endless creator. When asked about an ethos in his work Berg stated simply: “Without unity there can be no diversity.” eXpanseplane embodies the ethos to perfection.
On a Different Note:
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- Collective Review – Feersum Ennjin – S/T (Disassociated Press)
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