With Seven Kings the Meridian Arts Ensemble hits a sweet spot between esoteric modern composition and easy-to-digest musical fun. The interests of the group, which consists of a brass quintet plus a percussionist, span the centuries: their previous recording, Alchemy, gave baroque music a cool 21st-century vibe, while the compositions on Seven Kings all date from the past 20 years. The first is “Migration,” a jazzy Schubert-inspired work by Daniel Brabois, the sextet’s French horn player.
The five movements of David Sanford’s Seven Kings travel eccentric, moody paths, from the controlled chaos of the “Prologue” to the brilliantly textured bell tones of “Chimes” to the eerie languor and harmonic complexity of “Act V.” Sanford stretches the definition of counterpoint somewhat in the first “Contrapunctus” movement, with its thrilling rhythmic unison passages broken up by a toccata-like interlude of trumpet triplets and an airy staccato section. In the second “Contrapunctus” a playful tuba line and trumpet flares suggest heavy creatures moving through a forest and smaller beasts in the trees; these subside to a jazzy drums-and-trumpet duet, followed by a multi-solo section reminiscent of a distorted Dixieland rave-up.
The two pieces that center the album are more abstract. Dave Ballou’s highly modernistic single-movement “for brass quintet and percussion” builds slowly from a haunting opening marked by fluttering chromatics and trills, through a sequence of tonal clusters, into spacious, arhythmic passages, and all with a very improvisatory flavor. Maintaining interest and surprise without ever settling in to any one theme or mood seems to have been the challenge Ballou set himself. The piece meets it handsomely, right through the last sections, a set of slow ruminating chords leading to an anxious and finally martial presto.
Edward Jacobs’s “Passed Time” is a good companion piece to “for brass quintet,” with rhythmic looseness, tonal clusters, sharp accents, and muted figures and passages that are sometimes humorous and always tonally colorful. The musicians negotiate the abrupt changes with impressive precision. Despite tight rhythms and harmonies and even some unison passages, an off-the-cuff (but not jazzy) feel links it to Ballou’s piece. A closing chorale, full of dissonance but with a nonetheless devotional aura, brings all the material together.
Robert Maggio’s heavily percussive five-part suite Revolver, inspired by Jim Jarmusch’s western Dead Man, returns the album to the programmatic. Each movement has a distinct feel and voice: militant and piercing, steady and heavy, nervous and agitated, muffled and sad. The final movement’s quiet diffuseness would be surprising as an ultimate statement were it not titled “Opened to the Fragility (Slipping Away).” Evocative and accessible, the suite exemplifies how a piece of modern concert music composed with artful smarts can grab the listener’s attention without demanding arcane knowledge or even much intellectual effort.
The Meridian Arts Ensemble seems to follow no one’s bliss but its own. Yet along the way it consistently finds ways to bring musical traditions and attitudes together, to all our benefit.