Micro-East Collective - "062099" (Umbrella Recordings 1999, umbrella 024)
Micro-East Collective - "Out Of My Face" (Umbrella Recordings 2000, umbrella 025)
Micro-East Collective - "Fabric" (Umbrella Recordings 2000, umbrella 027)

From Aural Innovations #19 (April 2002)

Micro-East Collective (MEC) is a North Carolina based ensemble of nearly 20 musicians, and a fluctuating membership, that plays an orchestral style of improvisational music. The instrumentation is largely made up of horns, winds, and reeds (and these seem to drive the music), though there is also various stringed instruments, percussion, bass, and vibes.

The first MEC CD, 062099, includes two selections from a live performance. The first, "Lament," is described as a group improvisation based on a traditional melody sung by a Czech survivor of Auschwitz as depicted in Tony Gatlif's gypsy music film "Latcho Drom." I've not seen this film but it was interesting listening to the music with the subject in mind. The music is a dark orchestral free-improv, feeling like an extended buildup to a larger piece. The remainder of the CD is the 3-part 35-minute "Exploring The Metal Sphere", the sphere being a newly discovered planet, "clearly not of natural origins", with a surface that is completely polished. The liner notes lay out the commands (somewhat humorous) to a team to perform the first cartographic survey of the planet, the principle task being to find any defects in the surface. Having this high adventure imagery in mind makes for fun listening and indeed this piece, similar in style to "Lament", provides a haunting atmospheric soundtrack to this mission across the surface of the planet. The sizable ensemble of horns, winds, and reeds does an excellent job of creating atmosphere, tension, and even a sensation of suspense as the whole piece slowly and subtly builds toward what I was sure must be an explosion coming at any moment. The music develops fluidly, though attentive listening reveals instruments continually throughout the piece performing brief gymnastics that give the music it's character and variety, and helps to communicate the feeling the a story is unfolding.

MEC's sophomore release, Out Of My Face, is also from a live performance, but on this outing 15 members of the collective travel to New York City for a collaboration with Dr Nerve. Right from the opening track I can tell this is quite different from 062099. The music is more upbeat and even whimsical, and the themes shift continually and abruptly, as opposed to the steady continual evolution heard on 062099. Instruments are clearly defined, with each playing distinct roles yet still working cooperatively to create a group effort. "Quartet 7899" is a standout track on which the Dr Nerve contribution is evident. The percussion provides a solid rolling rhythmic foundation, the horns scream out in a Coltrane "Ascension" style, and Nick Didkovsky's sonic assault guitar makes for an intriguing contrast to MEC guitarist Mark Simonsen. An intense piece. "Determinant" is another attention grabber that maintains a kick-ass intensity level regardless of the pace, which alternates between frantic and subdued. It starts off in a rollicking free-jazz style, but soon settles into an orchestral jazzy atmospheric groove. A bit of Coltrane... a dash of Sun Ra... tasty. There are 12 tracks on the CD featuring oodles of free-improvs that range from interesting to exciting. The musicianship and interplay between the members is top notch, though in the end it was the combination of high intensity and whimsy that made this such an enjoyable listen.

MEC's most recent CD, Fabric, is a collection of improvisations and compositions utilizing both large and small groupings from the collective. Fabric is in some ways similar to Out Of My Face, but without the Dr Nerve folks kicking up the frenzy factor the MEC musicians give a more subdued performance that is, nonetheless, every bit as challenging and full variety as heard on Out Of My Face. Well... "Untoward" sure has a bit of that free-wheeling Dr Nerve horn sound. But I hear much more of a focus on notes... single horn notes, often in beautifully dissonant harmony with others, that linger long enough to be savored and thoroughly digested. I also hear a lot of the more overtly orchestral MEC heard on 062099, but the distinct voice of the instruments heard on Out Of My Face is very much in evidence, revealing so much more with subsequent listens. One of the highlights is the "Magnetic Hive Transmissions" which features saxophonist Frank Gratkowski, a musicians who was introduced to me by way of his Quicksand CD (see AI #15). This is good fun track and I was sure during parts of it that Carl Stallings himself must be directing the ensemble. If this isn't one of the composed pieces than these guys are truly amazing. The instruments build tension, descend, go off on thematic tangents, and regroup again, all with complete fluidity.

Overall, an impressive trio of releases that will appeal to fans of free-improv music. Start with Out Of My Face and work your way from there.

For more information you can visit the Umbrella Recordings web site at: http://www.umbrellarecordings.com/.

Reviewed by Jerry Kranitz

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