Confusion Bleue – East Side Banquet (2013)

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Confusion Bleue is a self-described “total improvisation unit” led by Japanese pianist Nobu Stowe (who also hold a PhD in Psychology) and Omaha native, drummer Ray Sage (formally of Reverb Motherfuckers). An extension of Stowe’s 2010 release, Confusion Bleue, the group also includes Ross Bonadonna on guitars, alto sax and bass clarinet, and Lee Pembleton handling “sound.”

Their new album East Side Banquet is a studio follow up to the Roulette Concert album, recorded the NYC’s East Side Studio. For this occasion, a couple of special guests were asked to participate: Lisle Ellis on bass and Brian Groder on trumpet. The songs take on an avant-classical bent paced by Stowe’s forceful approach and augmented greatly by Groder, who proves to be a key, sympathetic partner, even in ostensibly a guest role. The songs do feel made up on the spot, as each progress along a bell curve on an intensity graph, beginning with tentative, probing movements, coalescing, building to climax and landing softly. The other consistency is Sage’s role as a percussionist doesn’t equate to keeping time; he provides the soft rustles, the threatening rumbles and even the explosive rowdiness, but these songs don’t swing or groove: they flow.

There are seven songs, Movements I-VII, but presented in a different order. No matter, it still has the feel of a connected suite. On the opener “Movement V” it becomes clear that Groder is going to be prominent on this project, his trumpet soaring both lyrically and abstractly, and he carefully picks and chooses his spots, as Sage’s convulsive drums stay restless. The harmony they contrive is not rootless but still dispersed, and Bonadonna’s electric rock guitar adds a whole other, edgy dimension to this song. Stowe steps out to the fore as “Movement I” gets denser, veering in and out of tonality. He is even more up front on “Movement III,” playing in a percussive, modern classical manner with a free jazz rhythm section churning behind him. Groder casts his lot with Stowe, finding continuous counterpoints to him, as does Bonadonna’s single line ruminations WHEN an unexpected electric piano nudges its way into the conversation.

Bonadonna performs with an alto sax for “Movement II,” improvising along with Groder and Ellis’s bowed bass before swapping the sax for a John McLaughlin-like electric guitar (during this time, Stowe goes from electric to acoustic piano). Movements “VI” and “IV” center on exchanges between Stowe and Groder, the former a melancholy, Spanish styled melody and the latter also a dark mood accentuated by Stowe sticking to the lower register of his piano, creating a curious blend with Belladonna’s bass clarinet.

One performance in this set is a cover, of sorts. “Movement VII” is essentially Miles Davis’ “Nardis” with the chord changes partially disguised, until Stowe explicitly quotes the song in the brisk middle section. Both Stowe and Groder turn in their finest performances of the whole record during this performance.

The members and guests of Confusion Bleue walked into an East Side studio and feasted on the freedom provided by the format. It was indeed a banquet of an extemporaneous, music making spree.

East Side Banquet goes on sale at Amazon February 19 by Ictus Records.

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