Ken Thomson / JACK Quartet – THAW

For Brooklyn-based clarinetist, saxophonist and composer Ken Thomson, THAW is a representation of the pent-up creative expression all composers truly wish to unleash.  Split between the three part movement Perpetual  and the four part THAW, Thomson’s  Cantaloupe debut as a composer is utterly diverse and vividly imagined. Thompson is at his finest of writing, holding nothing back and capturing a raw essence of sound that rises and drops without warning, yet comes together to manifest into a stirring creation of the mind.

Opening with “Perpetual” for string quartet and bass clarinet, Thomson is crafty in his narrative, providing a mysterious yet alluring composition.  The first movement “underlying” is arguably the weakest point on the disc, but recaptures the heart on the trembling “Bad Idea” and closing, solemn movement “Don Pullen says it’s OK.”  The latter is perhaps the most memorable part on the record, maintaining a gloomily but hasty speed that will hold a close liking by Arvo Pärt fans.

The meat of the record is in Thomson’s newest concoction THAW. Performed by the JACK Quartet, THAW presents a demanding and daunting program for any level of performer. The JACK Quartet stays on page with Thomson’s near diabolical experimentation of strings and in turn give a resounding performance on the level of the some of the best contemporary compositions written for a quartet in the past decade. The frenetic pace of THAW blends well with JACK Quartet’s electric movement of strings and results in moments of intrigue and perplexity.

The first half of THAW, “Concrete” and “Dig” are erratic in structure, forcing the JACK Quartet to nearly go off the handle.  There is an underlying stress and overbearing weight felt on the first two movements, one where the burden may be a bit too harsh at times to the ear.  After such a march of force, it will come as a surprise that the third movement”Hole” arrives with such a gentle subtleness it feels almost out of place on the record, but easily the best part of the Thaw composition.

Thomson and the JACK Quartet really pull all the strings (literally) on the closing title movement.  The JACK Quartet’s strings dance to Thomson’s vision – eerily resembling a sound effect studio out of Lucas Film.  Similarities to “lasers shooting” or “light sabres clashing” would not be out of line in describing the final movement, as it emanates the most thought-provoking, if not heart-pounding moments of the record.  If there was only one way to describe the potential of Thomson and his grandeur imagination, Thaw‘s final movement is it.

All is not frosty on THAW however. There are moments where Thomson’s vision is a bit too disjointed, perhaps to the point of “forcing” emotion out of the listener to no avail, particularly on the first half of the second composition. Regardless, THAW is a brilliant overall record by Thomson (and a telling sign of JACK Quartet’s aggressive capabilities) and one of the finer hidden gems in contemporary classical  this year.

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