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Skylark Quartet, "Live in Tokyo"

cover image Live in Tokyo is a series of 11 distinct interpretations of the 1941 song "Skylark" by Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael performed by the quartet consisting of Orlando Lewis on clarinet, Franz-Ludwig Austenmeiser on keyboards, Hayden Pennyfeather on bass, and Roland Spindler on drums. This fact is anything but obvious upon listening, however. Based on the sound alone, it sounds more like an intimate series of improvisations rather than interpretations of a popular song from the 1940s, which was, I am sure, the performers' intent. It may bear some resemblance to its source material, however the quartet manage to create something nearly entirely original.

Marginal Frequency

They are anything but frequent, but there are moments across the 70 minutes of this album where there are clues that the quartet is interpreting a piece of traditional music.The second segment has some apparent clarinet and bass appearing in the mix, but the performance is almost excruciatingly slow, crawling along with the focus equally split between the instruments and the incidental sounds between.The fifth section also features up front clarinet and bowed bass, as well as an almost didgeridoo like sound appearing later on, but is still only musical in the loosest interpretation of the word.

Part six also has some apparent notes being played, augmented by a thumping, unconventional rhythm that mixes things up a bit.Knocking rhythms also pop up throughout the third part, with vibrating bass strings being the only other conventional sound in the mix.The remainder is a series of blowing and wheezing noises that are likely associated with the clarinet, but it is hard to say for sure.For the tenth piece, restrained and slow melody can be heard again, but just like the second part, it slowly trudges along.

The rest of the album comes across as even less musical and more conceptual in its deconstruction of the song.The opening part exemplifies this via the abrupt incidental clattering and empty space captured by the recording device.Eventually Pennyfeather's bass appears in the form of infrequently plucked strings and a bit of static crunch from Austenmeiser's keyboards, but the focus is obviously on the empty space.The nearly 20 minute seventh part is also a clearly more conceptual one.Random clattering sounds again open with sparse bass notes, weird clarinet squeaks by Lewis, and strange rhythmic noises via Spindler.Throughout it sounds like everyone spends a good portion of the time playing their instruments incorrectly (and I mean this as a complement), and even a bit of jarring outbursts of who knows what to punch into the mix.What stands out though, besides the intentional unconventionality, is the detail of the recording, which captures every little sound perfectly.

Extremely conceptual by design, Live in Tokyo is a strange recording to say the least.Even though it is ostensibly a long form interpretation of that original "Skylark" song, I would only know that due to the liner notes.Based solely on the recording, however, it is a challenging and complex bit of art that is intricately detailed, and the quartet's performance is beautifully captured.Baffling and confusing at times, the obtuseness of Live in Tokyo is what I found the most compelling about the disc.

Samples available here.