If a successful improvisation is based on the listener’s impossibility of remembering details at the end of the program, having been left with a merely essential idea of what the music intended to investigate, then Vanity is one of the most significant albums released in recent times. Grosse Abfahrt’s core members – trumpeter Tom Djll, clarinettist Matt Ingalls, guitarist John Shiurba, energized-surface-and-voltage-made-audible manipulator Gino Robair and electronic wizard Tim Perkis – were joined by a string trio consisting of cellist Theresa Wong, bassist David Chiesa and violinist Matthieu Werchowski in this performance recorded in Oakland, April 2008. The latter two musicians are featured in a gorgeous duo – the only track which doesn’t feature the rest of the group – called “Hang Bat5 Over”; all the titles, in Djll’s words, derive from “vanity plates, the curious stamped-metal bumper-culture expressions of people who like to broadcast their character and proclivities via licence plates”. The curiosity resides in the harsh contrast between the multifaceted intelligence that transpires from the musical interaction in comparison with the sociological misery generated by the concept of calling people’s attention on oneself through such a stupid thing.
The kind of sonic tampering utilized by Grosse Abfahrt in this particular occasion lies well below the calamitous level, privileging temporary conjunctions of carefully sculpted timbres and deviations from typical instrumental colours to fuse the distinct instances into an “incompletely collective” aggregation that leaves the single parts always perfectly visible. A slightly outlandish diversion might be represented by the opening of “Zoundz – Yours To Discover”, a nearly human raucousness introducing a sort of regulated randomness that mixes reed-cum-electronics high register ramifications and the atonal elegance of Webern-reminding combinations of strings. “Live Free Or Die Delphi2” is perhaps the place in which semi-solid abstraction and elemental concentration are more effectively balanced, and also where ruptured silence becomes an important factor. Overall, the players maintain a degree of conscientiousness during repeated cross-examinations, applying a fine blend of ever-present awareness and recombined disorderliness, voluntarily restraining themselves in a power reduction that increases gestural gravity, ultimately leaving the appealing qualities of these small conglomerates in evidence, but not necessarily accessible to everybody. If you didn’t understand a word of what I just wrote, try this: a great record.