Aros: Train Song (2004)
It might be highly civilized, but Train Song is so unassuming that it never crosses the line into pretense. That's important with music this serious, and it's not to be taken for granted. Aros is an Amsterdam-based sextet co-led by Canadian tenor player Rob Armus and Austrian pianist Marion von Tilzer, and this is the group's second release after a self-titled debut on BVHaast in 2001. Train Song capitalizes on the talents of the group, which include an urbane sophistication coupled with an openness to world music (from tango to West African polyrhythms), improvisation (from light swing to piercing wail), and the nooks and crannies of so-called "modern classical" music (Bartok through Cage and Glass).
Armus and Tilzer share the compositional reins for this outing (except the bass piece "One for Charlie," credited to Sven Schuster), and its eclectic bent reflects their tastes. The pianist is classically trained; her compositions tend to feature dramatic roles for the keyboard. "Four 'n a Half" operates around a carefully defined, deliberate theme and a sort of bittersweet fanfare prominently stated by horns and piano. Tilzer's (presumed) improvisation doesn't offer the kind of blues-based harmonies that predominate in regular jazz; instead, she rips and cascades through equally detailed but more rectangular motions. The combination feels more structured than spontaneous, but it has the virtue of offering a fresh cross-border excursion.
The almost dirge-like title track definitely sounds like a train, individual huffs and puffs delineated by piano and percussion while the horns trade soulful lines, before violinist Anne Wood steps in for staggered arpeggios atop martial beats and the group reconvenes. Steve Reich's "Different Trains" is an obvious antecedent that comes to mind, especially upon the reunion of the voices, but this is a decidedly old world approach to the music. It rises abruptly in intensity toward the end, still paced but marked more by timbre and dynamics, especially when it comes to Armus's dizzying saxophone flurry.
"Train Song" is matched by "Road Song," an anthem-like excursion through regular rhythms and staggered progressions. The closer comes in the form of "Rocket Song," which is not the predictable blast and burn (at all!) but instead a multi-stage event which spends plenty of time swirling in smoke and clouds along the way, glowing at the end and returning to an off-kilter reprise. Armus very effectively uses overtones to build quiet intensity in the open spaces. (Parts of this piece recall mechanized choruses from Koyaanisqatsi.)
You might find yourself counting out the oddly-coupled five and six-beat units at the start of "30" just to figure out the difficult combination, and this is one place where the intellectual aspect of form predominates over the emotional aspect of expression (before submitting to it shortly thereafter). But these six players, and especially Tilzer, are not afraid to put on their thinking caps, and it shows in the very self-conscious music they produce.
Track Listing: 1. Zimbabwe 2. Road Song 3. Four 'n a half 4. Tango 5. Ostinato 6. Train Song 7. Fugatisme 8. One for Charlie 9. 30 10. Song of the Heart 11. Rocket Song
Personnel: Rob Armus: tenor saxophone; Marion von Tilzer: piano; John Korsrud: trumpet; Anne Wood: violin; Sven Schuster: contrabass; Alan Purves: percussion.