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JANEL LEPPIN – ENSEMBLE VOLCANIC ASH (2022) (Cuneiform Records)

Janel Leppin’s formidable body of work is difficult to categorise: is it Chamber Jazz with touches of Rock in Opposition and Punk ethic or Contemporary Classical: the truth is all of them and none of them. I am not the first to make the suggestion that if MAHAVISHNU ORCHESTRA had been starting out today they might have sounded like this, a new kind of Jazz Fusion.


The album is strong compositionally and melodically with a thrilling visceral edge that is hard to find. Janel’s husband Anthony Pirog is an essential part of the equation unleashing an articulate, angular solo on the 9-minute ‘Woven Forest’; there are two saxophonists (Sarah Hughes on alto and Brian Settles on tenor), who both excel as soloists and ensemble players, a repeated motif dissolving into free jazz (expect unexpected twists and turns). Leppin has also played with a punk band and on ‘She Had Synaesthesia’ the cello comes close to a heavy metal guitar as she frantically solos, Pirog getting in on the act with a wailing solo of his own. ‘I Pose’ is a great piece of music, delicate and fragile with harp glissandos (Kim Sator), before bursting open like a lotus flower to reveal a haunting cello melody. and ending like the sound of an alien spaceship launching. ‘Her Hand is his Score’ is a gorgeous piece with pastoral guitar arpeggios and light cymbal work (Larry Ferguson).


‘Silvia’s Path’ is a perfect example of meaningful minimalism bringing MICHAEL NYMAN or PHILIP GLASS to mind. ‘Volcano Song’ sound like a lost post-bop classic with a well-constructed guitar solo, some classy sax, fine work from Luke Stewart on double bass and Ferguson with his delicate stick work; the harp/sax combination at its conclusion is superb and the piece recalls the halcyon days of COLTRANE and BLAKEY. The spirit of ALICE COLTRANE is present on ‘Clarity’ while ‘Leaving the Woods’ is equally good in its own way, with the cello and sax intertwining above Pirog’s guitar arpeggios and chords in a poignant jazz dance. There is are some different takes at the end in a medley of ‘Woven Forest/ She Had Synthaesia’: it’s quite a shock when the latter comes in at 5-minutes as jazz morphs into the kind of fractured music that invokes Robert Fripp’s KING CRIMSON, a therapeutic outpouring of fury.


The Washington Post (Democracy Dies in Darkness) has been following the progress of this gifted cellist and her band closely, and rightly so it is to be proud of their native jazz innovators. A large number of followers on Bandcamp are equally engrossed.

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