Thursday, June 16, 2011

Only Human - Chris Dingman's "Waking Dreams"

On the back of the CD case for his album "Waking Dreams," vibraphonist Chris Dingman places his name at the bottom of the personnel list. It's a small gesture, easily overlooked. The eye is instead drawn to this admonition: "Special care was put into making this album an experience. For best results, listen from beginning to end without pause."

In an age where Shuffle and 99 cent singles have made our ears crave musical variety with a voraciousness traditionally reserved for saturated fats, an album that feeds on sustained attention is anything but conformist. And in a culture where pop stardom is more about selling a personality than selling music, a self-effacing bandleader is downright heretical. Before "Waking Dreams" ever leaves its case, the album announces that its not interested in being cool or popular. It asks the listener to take it as it is and judge the whole self, not a 3 minute first impression. If one is patient and empathetic, one will encounter music that is filled with disarming humanity - messy yet lovable.

Dingman's humility is confirmed at the outset. There is no declamatory show of four-mallet virtuosity, but rather a plaintive prelude by pianist Fabian Almazan. As Almazan's final notes plink out like wind chimes, Dingman finally enters with bassist Joe Sanders, conjuring a mood of mystery and meditation. Trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire soars above the mist in solitude, later joined by Loren Stillman on alto sax. The music floats as a raft lost at sea, occasionally buoyed by Justin Brown's tom-tom waves. When the raft appears to stall hopelessly in doldrums, Sanders and Brown set a new course with a groove funky and fleet. Sax, trumpet, and vibes snake through a slippery melody before launching into a series of solos, one building into the next. Brown's combustible drumming brings the energy to a fever pitch, yet the energy dies away under glacial chords from Dingman's vibes and Ryan Ferreira's guitar.

While Dingman can't quite escape the inherent coldness of the vibes, his playing reflects a search for new sounds and textures on the instrument. Through a variety of means, he is able to smooth over the vibraphone's jagged edge. He pushes for the illusion of vocalized sustain by striking with extra fat mallets, bowing as if it were a string instrument, setting the electric-vibrato fan on slow. Instead of flinging icicles, he showers a soft layer of snow.

Dingman's search for deeper sounds continue to play out over introspective compositions. Whether the rhythms are surging or placid, Dingman and pianist Almazan layer on harmonies that are dark, rich, and ambiguous. All the players are zoned in, relentless in the pursuit of deep questions. This intense focus gets the best of the tunes about two-thirds of the way through the album. The tracks begin to blend together, bogged down by the heavy harmonies. Yet this near-monotony plays an important part in the character of the music. It affirms the music's realness and the complexity of the emotions conveyed. The dullness is conscious, and in some ways audacious move on the part of the musicians. They choose emotional honesty over shallow likability.

"Waking Dreams," isn't a perfect debut, but it shows a jazz composer who's deeply engaged with the expressive side of his music. The notes on the back of the CD case are born out track by track. You trust Dingman's message, even if it's not always what you want to hear. You trust him enough that you'll certainly pay attention when he's got something new to say.

Chris Dingman's "Waking Dreams" comes out on his own label, Between Worlds Music, on June 21. He has a CD release show at the Jazz Gallery in New York on Saturday June 18.

1 comment:

  1. sounds intriguing...i hope to be able to check it out on saturday! :)