Point of Departure “Spun Tree” review

December 6, 2012

Spun Tree is Michaël Attias’ first studio recording in six years and the first to revisit the elaborate ensemble writing featured on Credo (Clean Feed), which was made in 1999 but unreleased until 2006, a year after Renku, his Clean Feed debut. Intriguingly, it is also the only album in the multi-instrumentalist’s varied discography to feature a traditional quintet lineup fronted by saxophone and trumpet. Limiting himself to alto in this conventional format, Attias enjoys rare accord with trumpeter Ralph Alessi, whose aesthetic temperament and dynamic range matches the leader’s at every turn. Whether soloing in tandem or executing contrapuntal motifs, Attias and Alessi make a consummate pair. Ably supporting the congenial frontline in an array of evocative settings are up and coming pianist Matt Mitchell, semi-ubiquitous bassist Sean Conly and veteran drummer Tom Rainey.

Consisting of eight new pieces, the record is evenly split between long-form compositions featuring numerous shifts in tempo and tone and shorter, more streamlined works, like the melodious through-composed ballad “Arc-En-Ciel.” Attias’ episodic writing expertly balances intricate harmonic frameworks and malleable structures, allowing his sidemen ample room for unique interpretations of the written material. Colorful unaccompanied preludes are commonplace, including Rainey’s hypnotic drum intro to “Question Eight,” Mitchell’s regal thematic extrapolations at the outset of “Ghost Practice” and the shofar-like trumpet fanfare that opens “Calendar Song.” The latter provides an exemplary showcase for the group’s intuitive prowess. Sustaining the tune’s fervent mood mid-song with a rousing drum solo, Rainey’s thunderous palpitations are underscored by Mitchell, whose percussive block chords ring out with militaristic precision before Attias and Alessi’s dovetailing cadences culminate in strident call-and-response figures that bolster the coda’s martial theme.

Whether expounding on non-linear narratives or pithy motifs, the quintet invests each cut with a subtle, haunting ambience, providing the session with a cohesive emotional center. From the bracing angularity of “Question Eight” and the driving swing of the title track, to the minor key introspection of “No’s No” and the noir blues of “Subway Fish Knit,” each number exudes a moody, cinematic flair. Even the carnival-like ebullience of “Ghost Practice” is tempered by stark episodes of dark lyricism. A compelling release from an artist whose selective output rarely accentuates his compositional abilities, Spun Tree is an exceptional album, revealing additional layers with each spin.

– Troy Collins