The music on the new album Smoke: Music of Marc Mellits, the debut album from the ensemble New Music Detroit, won’t sound alien to fans of prog-rock, any more than it will to followers of minimalism or other strains of modern concert music. (Musico-genealogical note: Terry Riley’s son Gyan Riley is the ensemble’s guitarist on the album.)
Try if you will, for example, to follow all the time signatures in the title suite’s eight movements; the rhythms will likely sweep you up until you don’t care that you can’t.
These short pieces canter and gallop and rock in various ways. A prominent marimba suggests Afropop. Fuzzed-out electric guitar drives a final movement that’s a shocker after seven thoroughly acoustic (and meticulously performed and recorded) pieces.
“Red” for two marimbas captures more textures from that instrument than you might have imagined possible, from delicate 16th-note flash to church-organ-like hum to carnivalesque bounce, with vivid musicality and a wide spectrum of emotional suggestiveness.
Texture is also key to the eight very short movements of String Quartet No. 3 “Tapas,” where crisp statements that leave us wanting more surround a gently lyrical centerpiece which at four minutes feels luxurious in this context. The warm but subdued pizzicato of the sixth movement contrasts with the insistent rhythms of the first and seventh and the bright cantabile of the third.
This music sounds adventurous even though it rests almost entirely in traditional harmonic modes. And when the final movement of the string quartet opens with a dissonant thunderclap, it puts a decisive exclamation point on Mellits’ mastery.
A longer piece, “Prime,” scored for bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, two percussionists, and piano, opens playfully, sounding like an extended mix of a 1960s TV spy series theme song. Though written in one movement, “Prime” is a suite of groovy, connected vignettes. Using simple themes and progressions Mellits explores a complex of sonic chambers and narrative styles. I thought at different times of jazz fusion, Gershwin, Yes, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherezade, even the jazzy scores to midcentury French films.
If there’s a nagging voice in the back of your head telling you serious music shouldn’t also be fun, tell it to shut up and listen to Marc Mellits’s works on Smoke. If you’re in a funk, New Music Detroit will smoke you out of it. Light(en) up!