Jazz plectrist Sebastian Noelle arrived in New York ten years ago and has found his place within the more advanced modern jazz corner of the scene. A member of Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Jeff Fairbanks’ Project Hansori, the Aaron Irwin Quintet, a rock band called Rabbits Against Music, and a host of other ensembles across the spectrum, he’s honed not only his own approach to jazz but also his composing skills. It’s only very recently that he’s led his own recording dates, beginning with Across The River in 2010, and quickly following it up the next year with Koan. Backing up Noelle on Koan is a well-seasoned crew that includes saxophonist Loren Stillman (Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Carla Bley, Joe Lovano), pianist George Colligan (Cassandra Wilson, Lonnie Plaxico, Buster Williams), bassist Thomson Kneeland (Chris Potter, Mark Turner, Lynne Arriale, Joe Maneri), and Tony Moreno (Bill Frisell, Mal Waldron, Sonny Fortune, Paul Bley).
Noelle’s compositions are progressive, the kind that render themselves as puzzles that take a few listens to solve, and thus make for engaged listening. It does so while remaining colorful and expressive. That’s something Pat Metheny mastered and brought to a wider audience some thirty odd years ago, but Noelle’s melodies stretch out toward the limits more so than Metheny. Like the older master, Noelle prefers playing soft, airy notes in a direct fashion, and he steers clear of effects and trickery in his playing, leaving no obstruction between his guitar and the listener.
“Loophole” (video of live performance, with Marc Mommaas replacing Stillman on sax) is very indicative of the Sebastian Noelle style. Noelle makes little distinction between what is charted and what is improvised. As on many of his other tracks, Noelle’s arpeggiated progressions weave a web around Stillman’s sax and Colligan’s piano. Colligan, by the way, turns in his best performance of the record here, a sizzling solo keen on both the polished melody and the rhythms.
Moreover, Noelle employs varying tactics each with the goal of utilizing the talent around him to create an integrated sound. He’ll engage on unison runs with Kneeland on one song (“Morning Dream”), double up with Colligan on another (“Wanderlust”) and Stillman on several others, like “Above.” For “Sinai,” the two harmonize with each other instead. In each instance, the paired lines aren’t these quicksilver runs, but move more slowly in a mysterious but intuitive manner.
“Feed The Monster” stands out a bit on this album, because a Middle Eastern flavored melody is used, carried out by another Noelle/Stillman unison run, but this time they race through these winding lines much quicker. There’s also a rougher edge in Noelle’s tone, which also makes the song more distinguishable from the rest of the fare.
Though Sebastian Noelle is just getting going as a leader, Koan shows that he’s getting the hang of this bandleader thing very quickly.