Erik Hove Chamber Ensemble-Polygon: Album Review

On his follow-up to “Saturated Colour,” Montreal sax player Erik Hove refines his coloristic tonal world with splashes of left-field harmonies decorating groove-oriented song forms.  As solos from Canadian great Andy King and New York-based, Montreal expat Anna Webber come to the fore, the work finds pockets of small ensemble ideology within the atmosphere of sound.  Perhaps Hove broadcasts his influences a bit too forwardly on “Drift,” and perhaps a bit more time could’ve been spent out in space with inter-ensemble communication (i.e. “Inversions”), but “Polygon” is a digestible collection of well-written tunes in a sound aesthetic unique to Hove.

Spectralism is the big word dropped in conversation with Hove in regards to his chamber ensemble.  Having received a master’s degree in composition at McGill, he spent as much time as possible with the likes of Ligeti and Grisey, hoping to incorporate their tonal language into a jazz setting.  To try and explain spectralism quickly, the movement began with computer analysis in an effort to rethink harmony and timbre.  The texture is made tense by contradicting rhythmic parts with relentless repetition and the harmonies are generally extremely closely voiced with the use of quarter tones rather than the usual half and whole steps.

https://youtu.be/rXaNFBzgDWI

This influence is most audible in the work of the large ensemble.  “Tessellation” opens the album with a plucked string melody that repeats obsessively before some strange, angular melodies come through with each chord sounding superbly harsh on the downbeats of the odd meter.  The return of these parts with the second chorus of Hove’s solo makes for a hectic space and a riveting backdrop for his fiery saxophone lines.

As is the case with much of the first five tracks, the dust clears for Hove to take a solo in the center over the bass and drums.  A new addition here is the electronic drone sound that sits in the background.  It helps a great deal with the solos if the rest of the ensemble drops out for the beginning so that the soloist has some time to develop their ideas and Hove does this, but the electronic drone sound remains, making the return of the rest of the ensemble much more cohesive—especially considering the lack of piano.

“Fractured” is perhaps a bit more melodically driven as Webber brings forward a squirrely melody at the front of the track, with Hove battling her with Sax melody as clashes of harmony come at the end.  Although the electronics are absent, the lightness of delivery makes the return of the chords within the solo sensible.  Not to the point of becoming one dimensional or tiring, but the next three tracks largely continue in the vein of the first pair with angular grooves and decorative chords.

“Inversions” is much more focused on sonic landscape.  The track opens with a big drone sound and pulsing woodwinds and strings and never fully embraces a meter.  Instead, the big crystal of sound dissolves to find Hove, King, and a good chunk of the ensemble (Jean René**  is in their as well as drummer Evan Tighe) trading off ideas out in disorienting free space.

Personally, I find this more appealing than the other meterless-sounding creation “Drift,” which essentially adds more and more harmony onto the foundation to amass a mind-bending crunch at around the six minute mark.  It feels too much like a piece of spectralism that’s been written before, whereas “Inversions” brings in the idea of improvisation more strongly.  I also feel as though more free improvisation could have come into play earlier on the work.  Still, the record never really finds a dull moment.

Bassist Rémi-Jean Leblanc and drummer Evan Tighe bring stand-out performances to back up the various soloists from track to track.  For instance, on the next track, “Tetrahedrons,” King is given free space to fire off some biting bop lines and Tighe is with him at every turn.  I’m sure Andy King doesn’t need any help crafting intriguing material on his own, but the communication between him and Tighe makes the moment that much more compelling.

Erik Hove is certainly an innovator and “Polygon” again showcases his band-leading skills.  Each track sounds fantastic and Hove is more commanding of the tonal pallet of spectralism than on his last effort.  In terms of overall album flow, I think there are some places that could’ve been presented a bit better, but it’s clear that his career will continue to blossom with each coming release.

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

**review originally listed Josh Zubot as the soloist here, but it is in fact Jean René, I regret this error and thank Erik for pointing it out as well as reading my review.

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