CD Reviews

Erin Connelly: Fruitful

Erin Connelly’s debut album Fruitful is a beautiful snapshot of four talented artists caught in the moment of creation. Recorded live at Peabody Conservatory’s Joe Byrd Hall, the album features Derrick Michaels on saxophones, Tony Martucci on drums, and Zach Swanson on upright bass, and consists of just three tracks, each a fully improvised work with its own colors and textures. Rather than looking for formal themes and clear structures like “heads” and “choruses,” you can best approach this music as a conversation, listening for the multiple dialogues that unfold as the musicians invent and respond, explore, and expand.

“Apricity,” the first track, starts with a rich melody of long notes, led by Michaels and filled out by Connelly — simple, but increasingly decorated, and becoming more adventurous as the drums join in unmetered accompaniment. Eventually the bass joins, immediately setting up an ambling pulse with the drums, while Connelly’s and Michaels’ stylistic meanderings begin to take shape over the top of the rhythm. I’m reminded of Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew,” not in the tone but in the way that seemingly isolated ideas eventually coalesce into a groove.

After a bit, the sax takes the lead with a longer thought which becomes more of a conversation with the trumpet, until eventually the rhythm settles back into a more meditative, exploratory feel, but with all four members taking a very active part. Connelly introduces a lovely melody around 7:20, developing a theme which is then picked up and recast by Michaels as the energy builds back up. The buildup continues, with Martucci in particular driving the whole group up to a climax that finally stops with a sudden, but not jarring, series of snare hits.

Martucci and Swanson lead off the next track, “Lone,” with bass flitting about over a bed of cymbal rolls, soon joined by Connelly’s trumpet outlining a soft melody. After about two minutes (that’s one thing I love about this record — they are not afraid to take their time and build a mood), the energy picks up with drums playing a sort of irregular swing, propelling forward until joined by saxophone while the energy is near its peak (pleasantly bucking a tendency among improvisors to enter tentatively during a lull). Long tones eventually give way to more staccato interplay which come to a nice rounded finish.

“Nutriment,” the final track, starts on more solid ground, with Martucci laying out a pleasing groove on the drums until sax and bass join in, with trumpet close behind. What follows is some good driving interplay, broken up with drum riffs that bring everybody periodically to a stop as if playing a very sophisticated game of musical chairs. This interplay develops nicely, reinforcing the idea without getting boring, then breaks to a lighter, more varied section evoking bird songs and scurrying woodland creatures. This section eventually gives way to a softly swinging feel. This feel doesn’t last, though, soon morphing into a rock/funk groove that still manages to bubble with the same light and soft energy. A lovely sax “solo” around 11 minutes in becomes a tight-woven dialogue with trumpet, until the drums ultimately break into a fluid, complex rhythm with hocketing horns again evoking birdsong, but in a more stylized way. Connelly introduces a new melodic line into this mix, and the whole group plays with variations stemming from this line, still interspersed with hocketing [i]and arrhythmic embellishments.

This interplay winds down very naturally about fifteen and a half minutes in, to the extent that you could probably call the next section a new piece. It starts again with drums, but this time with more of an exploratory approach. Swanson comes in busy, but quiet, imparting a pleasant burbling feel while Connelly and Michaels play more languid swirling melodies. A tasteful quote of Mingus’ “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” by the trumpet then sets the direction for a new feel as rhythm softens. This leads into some of the album’s best material, developing quickly away from Mingus, but, perhaps because of being so late in a long piece, the players all seem to have gotten deep into the zone of listening and communicating, almost magically, slowly developing a new soundscape. There is no rush to move before the time is right, nor to impress with busy technique (always a danger in improvisation — even in more structured settings). After a breakdown to feature bass and drums, horns reenter on the Mingus-inspired melodies, building to a climax that is cut to a short finish — again, very tastefully — by a loud drum figure hearkening back to the first half of the piece.

Unfortunately, the recording quality doesn’t quite do the material justice. The horns are very mic’d fairly well, and the sound overall is good, if clearly a live recording. The drums, though, could be clearer; in particular, the reverb (maybe from the live room and mic placement, but more likely a digital addition) leaves the drums sounding a little bit murky — it’s not terrible, but it does obscure some of the subtlety of the music. Overall, the mix sounds quite good on a decent home stereo, or in good headphones. Sadly, it did not sound so good on my computer speakers, so don’t be disheartened if listening on your computer — this music deserves a decent delivery as much as it deserves a focused listen.

There is something almost paradoxical about a recording such as this: Improvisation of this kind (without “chord changes” or other set structures) is by nature ephemeral, a response to a particular moment in time that can never be repeated. To listen to it recorded, then, takes away just a tiny bit of the magic imparted by sharing the moment of creation. On the other hand, we can listen over again, hear different nuances that might otherwise escape notice, and we can enjoy the fruits of that creation for the work of art that it is. And it is definitely enjoyable — Connelly’s sound and vision have created an album well worth listening to. Above all though, this album makes me want to hear more, to be there in the moment with Erin and her artistic partners.

Connelly will give an album release performance at 8 pm on Sunday, March 19th, in Hampden at Zissimo’s Bar, 1023 W. 36th St., Baltimore 21211

–by Ian Rashkin

Ian Rashkin is a bass player and composer, past president of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance and currently its treasurer. Although he moved to California in 2022, he is still active in planning BJA events and contributing to the newsletter.

[i] Hocketing either involves instruments taking turns playing discrete portions of a single melody, normally at a rapid tempo and in fluid succession, or two instruments playing in a call-and-response.

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