It's become a trope that artists aren't interested in being limited by genre — at least the really fascinating ones, that is. One of the most enjoyable current examples of this reach beyond stylistic divides is Almanac, the newest project from the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.
To celebrate its 10th anniversary together, the group (violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Eric Jacobsen) commissioned a wide-ranging assemblage of musicians to write new works, including Wilco's Glenn Kotche, singer-songwriter Aoife O'Donovan, Deerhoof's Greg Saunier and a host of jazz luminaries, including Ethan Iverson of The Bad Plus, pianist Vijay Iyer and guitarist Bill Frisell. The quartet charged the composers with an inspired framing device: Each work should take the output of another creative muse of the last 50 years as its inspiration.
The resulting pairings offer energizing food for thought, in large part because of their diversity. Violinist Colin Jacobsen, who also composes, picked David Byrne for the ethereal Exit, which features guest singer Shara Worden, a.k.a. My Brightest Diamond. Iyer, for whom rhythm is a hugely important concern, finds a kindred spirit in James Brown. And some of the composers looked to other media, like Bill Frisell (John Steinbeck), Ethan Iverson (choreographer Mark Morris) and Padma Newsome of Clogs (Aboriginal Australian painter Albert Namatjira).
Regardless of the smart framing, the success of such an endeavor ultimately rests on the music itself — and there are plenty of pleasures here. The rollicking opening track, "Necessary Henry!" (named after Henry Threadgill), is a great introduction to the music of Albanian-born New York cellist and composer Rubin Kodheli. Newsome's Simpson's Gap is a sweet bit of Americana by way of an Australian composer, and Venezuelan pianist Gonzalo Grau offers a clever and crafty Five-Legged Cat, inspired by Chick Corea.
Brooklyn Rider is one of today's most technically accomplished string quartets, full stop. Its superb playing is matched only by the thought, commitment and inspiration its members pour into projects like this one — making the string quartet not a relic of times long gone, but a vessel for the shape of music to come.
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