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The Schmooze

Monday Music: Gabriele Coen’s Anxious ‘Awakening’

Gabriele Coen’s “Awakening” is a dark, moody collection of pieces built around complex, syncopated rhythms and long, spinning melodies in minor modes. Coen and his band mates are clearly accomplished jazz musicians, and together they produce moments of understated elegance. But don’t think of playing this album at your next cocktail party — your guests would likely take their conversations into another room. This is music that not only demands active listening, but also seems designed to engender anxiety.

The album’s title track, which clocks in at over eight minutes, alternates between high tension and relative calm without ever building to a particularly cathartic climax. It starts with a chaotic drum fill accompanied by improvised squeaks and blats from Coen’s saxophone before settling into a rhythmic groove laid down by the bass.

Listen to ‘Awakening’:

The other rhythm instruments are layered in — guitar first, then piano — before the saxophone enters with a saucy, snaking melodic line. Variations on this theme continue for several minutes as the basic melody alternates with ever-more frantic solos from Coen and cellist Benny Penazzi. As the six-minute mark approaches, the comfortable groove totally breaks down: the cello scrambles upward with eerie harmonics and scraping sounds, the piano bangs out mismatched treble chords before dropping out entirely, and everything comes to nervous almost-stillness before the piano re-enters with the now-familiar syncopated bass line. The saxophone and other instruments join in for a reprise of the original melody, first at its original tempo, then — in a final flourish — at twice the original speed.

Most of the pieces on the album follow a similar form: A relentless bass groove, sometimes in a mixed meter, provides the foundation for meandering and increasingly virtuosic solos; Coen seems able to play forever on a single breath; the mood alternates between sober melancholy and nervous agitation. A Carl Jung quote printed in the liner notes suggests a tension between inner turmoil and externalized desire: “He who looks outside his own heart DREAMS, he who looks inside his own heart AWAKENS.”

A certain Jungian unrest seems to run throughout the album, though there are, of course, variations in tone. “No Hay Boda Sin Pandero,” has a Latin flavor, with Simone Haggiag playing bongo and congas. “Vibes,” featuring Luca Coponi, is rhythmically cleaner and more sparsely orchestrated than some of the other pieces, which makes the juxtapositions between the metronomic ostinato patterns and the freer solo passages all the more pleasing. One of my favorites is “Merry-Go-Round,” a subdued piece with a lilting harmony that allows Coen’s saxophone to sing sweetly.

Another highlight is “Di Sapozhelekh,” a piece in which Coen explores the characteristic mixture of sorrow and wild exuberance at the heart of klezmer music. He gives a bravura clarinet performance, though his playful pitch-bending is occasionally a bit liberal for my taste. The piano and guitar solos halfway through the piece provide a welcome and unexpected contrast.

Listening to this album, there are moments when I find myself wishing that the music would settle down a bit. I long for moments of pause, for melodies that don’t always circle back on themselves, and for shorter, more tightly structured pieces. I’m not sure, finally, whether I’m responding to some flaw in the music, or if my discomfort is a consequence of my own peculiar temperament. Tension is what propels this music forward, and the album is at its weakest where that feeling of angst wanes. “Shemesh,” with its sunny, consonant piano harmonies and wailing saxophone melody, bears an unfortunate resemblance to the more insipid varieties of smooth jazz. The effect is heightened by the piece’s placement near the end of the album — just after the grand and stormy (and, I would argue, supremely overwrought) “Nostalgia.”

Coen’s music is at its best where it is most difficult — and most likely to make me feel nervous. It’s not what I’d choose to listen to all day, but surely there’s something to be said for music that demands so much emotional investment.

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