Brooklyn Rider, The Brooklyn Rider Almanac

Brooklyn Rider
Wondering Sound

By John Schaefer

The intrepid string quartet known as Brooklyn Rider has already amassed an impressive catalog of works drawing on world music traditions, electronics and, yes, the classical string quartet canon. But The Brooklyn Rider Almanac may be their most ambitious project yet. It’s a series of commissioned works, each inspired by a different artist — which could mean a visual artist, a novelist or another musician. The album itself is inspired by a 100-year-old cross-disciplinary project, Der Blaue Reiter Almanach (The Blue Rider Almanac) published by the artists Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc in 1912. The Blue Rider was an artistic collective that reached out to leading composers of the day, like Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Now, Brooklyn Rider has accumulated works by composers as varied as guitarist Bill Frisell, jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, Greg Saunier from the rock band Deerhoof and the quartet’s own Colin Jacobsen.

Jacobsen’s “Exit” was inspired by David Byrne, and features guest vocals from Shara Worden of My Brightest Diamond [], who’s in great form here. Its interlocking syncopated lines make it one of several highlights, along with Glenn Kotche‘s “Ping Pong Fumble Thaw,” inspired by electronic musician Jens Massel. Kotche uses pizzicato and even more percussive effects (unsurprisingly, for a guy best known as the drummer in Wilco) to create a strong rhythmic drive that suddenly melts into long, bowed overtones. Ethan Iverson, pianist from the Bad Plus, offers the cleverly named “Morris Dance,” inspired not by the English folk dance of that name but by the choreographer Mark Morris. Iverson’s jaunty, if slightly off-kilter, dance is good, cartoonish fun.

Brooklyn Rider’s performances throughout are committed and persuasive, allowing a series of relatively short pieces for (mostly) the same four instruments to reveal many layers of possibility, from Aoife O’Donovan’s song-without-words “Show Me” to Greg Saunier’s angular “Quartet, Parts One and Two.” Frisell’s self-explanatory “John Steinbeck” does indeed evoke the wide open spaces of the American West; Gonzalo Grau’s “Five-Legged Cat” is a propulsive romp through various bowed, pizzicato and scratched-string effects. (Grau’s inspiration was jazz pianist Chick Corea, but the ghost of Astor Piazzolla’s Nuevo tango might be haunting this music too.) From the pastoral sounds of Australian musician Padma Newsome (a longtime keyboardist for the National) to the bustling urban energy of Daniel Cords, Almanac presents a broad palette — and Brooklyn Rider proves adept at using it to paint in sound.