Traffic Continues

by: Fred Frith

For the past quarter century the varied recordings of peripatetic musical renegade Fred Frith have provided a far-flung tour of the worldwide avant-garde fringe. On Traffic Continues, he composes for and plays guitar with Ensemble Modern, the venerable 21-piece new music assemblage based in Frankfort, Germany. This handsomely packaged Winter & Winter CD is one of the strongest statements of Frith's career, a finely balanced work that contains concert hall and street sensibilities in equal measure, preserving the full vitality of the composer's idiosyncratic musical personality. There are two lengthy pieces on the recording, the 29-minute "Traffic Continues" written in 1996 and the 35-minute "Traffic Continues II: Gusto (for Tom Cora)" written in 1998 as an homage to the late Tom Cora, the phenomenal cellist who was a member of the avant rock band Skeleton Crew with Frith and harpist Zeena Parkins. The first composition is scored for 15 musicians and is dense with ideas yet provides plenty of room for many individual voices (including Frith himself on guitar) to shine. The piece is nearly a summation of the diverse strains that have characterized Frith's music, with varied instrumental groupings vertically layered in polyrhythmic counterpoint; wild free jazz improvisations scattered between, over, and through the scored sections; and rubato passages punctuated by crisp pointillistic gestures. "Traffic Continues" is structured to allow for considerable improvisation triggered by the conductor, and the musicians rise to the occasion with fire and verve, even though Ensemble Modern is not typically an improvising unit. The results on this particular take also have a natural organic flow and cohesiveness despite the mixing of forms. With somewhat less vertical complexity and more textural exploration than "Traffic Continues," "Gusto" moves through a series of vignettes performed by Frith, Parkins, Ikue Mori (on drum machines), and members of the Ensemble. The piece perfectly mixes the ragged energy of downtown New York improv with bursts of massed instruments while going straight for the heart with "Adage" interludes containing samples of Cora at his most lyrical and evocative. At the closing "One Never Knows Do One?/Adage Coda/Long Fade," the music hovers in stasis with Cora's cello a ghostly presence; the full Ensemble then gradually reenters in one of the most stunningly beautiful passages that Frith has ever written. Tom Cora's untimely death was a tremendous loss to creative music, and it will become clear to any listener of "Gusto" that Cora was not only a wonderful collaborator to Frith, but also a fellow life traveler and friend. The closing elegiac minutes of this CD prove that even the most cutting-edge new music is most meaningful when there is emotional resonance at its core. Exploration of pure sound and noise for their own sake has its merits, but "Gusto" provides an altogether deeper experience. ~ Dave Lynch

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