Death in the Maze: Accidental Ritual
Hearing local reeds player/avant-everyman John Berndt perform with people is always a treat, if only because his considerable time spent performing and thinking for solo improvisation has forged a unique vocabulary that's always engaging to hear with other voices. Berndt went ecstatic with his sorely missed Multiphonic Choir, and he takes a similar idea--multiple reeds plus percussion--to explore inner space with Death in the Maze. A quartet of Berndt on soprano and alto saxophones, Samuel Burt on clarinets, the bruising Rose Hammer on baritone sax, and Paul Neidhardt on percussion, Death in the Maze splinters microtonal ideas to even more slippery fragmentations, with each sound and sound collision imbued with deeper, monolithic significance. Think Jackson Pollock made with 93 percent fewer pours, stripes, squiggles, and darting pigment folds and you'll be getting close.
What the group concocts on its Accidental Ritual debut is a guided tour through an unlit, cavernous space that isn't ominous, foreboding, or obdurate. For heady, subdued small-group improvisation, it's quite airy and inviting. Just take the "percussion" after Neidhardt's name with a grain of salt--the "friction" credit of the CD's back cover is more apt. Texture is Neidhardt's prime goal here, and the various rubbing, pushing, scratching, vibrating, and otherwise anti-rhythmic nuances you hear here are the crenelated backdrops he gently throws against the sky before which the reeds dance. He still hits things occasionally--on the slippery "The Gull," for instance--but it sounds like he's primarily there to offer tasteful, suggestive sound ripples off which Berndt, Burt, and Hammer can blurt.
And boy howdy do they: Aspirations, fluttering, guttural buzzing, and the low-register bee's dance of "Ceremonial Porcelain" position Death in the Maze in a peculiar light. On the one hand, the intensity of the player's listening is directly indebted to the more intellectual abstraction of 1970s European free improvisation; on the other, the congenial energy they bring to such concentrated action painting is peppered with the convivial warmth of the American underground. It's a delicate balance, but one that's indebted to the impish glee that's encouraged--and possibly even serves as the connective tissue--in the literally anything-goes universe of Baltimore experimental music.