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Susie Ibarra Trio - Songbird Suite

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Artist: Susie Ibarra Trio

Album: Songbird Suite

Label: Tzadik

Review date: Mar. 31, 2002

The most revealing moment in percussionist Susie Ibarra's new release, Songbird Suite, comes in the first track, "Azul": Ibarra and pianist Craig Taborn lock into a bouncy 4/4 groove, over which violinist Jennifer Choi plays a chirpy, sing-song refrain. Taborn takes an exhilarating, polyrhythmic solo, then Choi takes over with a string of caffeinated flailings that jump wildly between the high and low ranges of her instrument.

Choi's solo trails off, leaving Taborn and Ibarra playing the same bouncy loop that opened the piece. So here's the situation: a virtuosic jazz drummer is playing on the first track of a record that bears her name. She's written all the music for the record, and both other members of her trio have taken solos. Almost any other drummer in the same situation would do the expected by taking a solo of her own, either by trying to play within the 4/4 meter or by breaking from it altogether. But Ibarra, who understands that the pulse is the most important element of the piece, avoids both options and stays in the background. Choi repeats the chirpy refrain, and the track ends.

Nothing about Songbird Suite is very sonically surprising—it’s constructed from familiar bits of out-jazz and contemporary classical music; it’s dissonant, but never gratuitously so; it’s never terribly aggressive; and none of the players ever seem too determined to make a bold statement. But, as “Azul” shows, it defies the solo-first-ask-questions-later approach to composition taken by most jazz musicians of Ibarra’s ilk. It’s refreshing to hear improvisation as good as this used almost purely in the service of Ibarra’s compositions—even if it means we don’t get to hear her solo on the first track of her own record.

As the title of the CD suggests, a lot of time in Songbird Suite is spent emulating bird sounds—there are lots of repetitive, quiet, high-register phrases, so most of the record isn’t nearly as propulsive as “Azul”. Electronics (played by Taborn and guest laptopper Ikue Mori) and drums often stay in the background, leaving space for delicate piano chords and open-ended violin lines that hang in the air like fog.

It is in the midst of these sorts of textures that Choi thrives—she’s clearly more experienced as a classical performer than as a jazz performer, and she’s overmatched on the few tracks that demand quick, hyperactive improvisation. But she sounds wonderful on the pieces where she can relax and let her polished, gorgeous tone do the talking. Taborn’s last quartet date ventured a bit too far into Chick Coreaville for my tastes, but he sounds perfect in this setting, playing light, pensive chords and single-note phrases that seem to end with question marks rather than exclamation points.

As for Ibarra herself: if you want fireworks, listen to her playing on David S. Ware’s Go See the World—she’s displayed them already. Although there’s some standard drum set playing, particularly at the beginning of “Nocturne” and in the vampy “Passing Clouds”, Ibarra’s drumming generally emphasizes color, mostly utilizing splashes of cymbals and toms and other tuned drums. Her solo “Trance No. 1” unfolds slowly and doesn’t rely on flashy playing to gets its point across—and its construction is rock-solid. Like the rest of Songbird Suite, it moves with absolute clarity toward its predetermined goal. Every move on the disc seems calculated to suit Ibarra’s compositional intentions, and Taborn, Choi and Ibarra herself deserve applause for not letting their performer-egos get in the way.

By Charlie Wilmoth

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