Fifty-three seconds into 'The Second Renga (Ken)' somebody laid me on my ass. One of the six reeds players in James Falzone's Renga Ensemble pushes his instrument into its upper register and fires off a high bird call of a fluttering cluster of notes. Another player picks it up and then they both drop out, replaced by what sounds like a different pair of players laying down rhythmic low gurgles over which saxophones and clarinets take turns exchanging marbled runs.
'Second Renga' is but the third song on "The Room Is" (Allos Documents), the recently released debut from this wind ensemble whose winter tour concludes in Baltimore tonight, and already the brain is overrun with dizzying displays of calm ecstasy. Still to come: Falzone's soaring solo on 'The Fifth Renga (James),' the ethereally haunting beauty of 'White,' and the playful way 'That Red Apple' evokes both 1920s swing and ecstatic 1960s intimacy. Falzone, a native Chicago composer and clarinetist, stacked Renga with overflowing performers and composers who are formidable on their own: Ben Goldberg (B-flat clarinet, contra E-flat alto clarinet), Keefe Jackson (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet, contra B-flat bass clarinet), Ned Rothenberg (B-flat clarinet, alto saxophone), Jason Stein (bass clarinet), and Ken Vandermark (B-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, baritone saxophone). (See the trailer for the group and album.)
In jazz years, Renga is a young group both in its own timeline (Falzone formed it for a series of concerts in spring 2013) and individual members (improvisational wild-cards Goldberg, Rothenberg, and Vandermark, in their 50s, are the ostensible elders), but the group makes music that exudes a seasoned appreciation of control and restraint. Any one of these guys is capable of firing off a blistering display of technical chops, which isn't what this setting needs. Instead, they pack a novel's worth of emotion and verve into tastefully chosen and arranged sounds, like six poets responding to each other's ideas with le mot juste with disarming consistency. "The Room Is" isn't an example of conservative maturity; it's an all-in gamble to reach for the timeless.
Falzone is a music researcher and educator as well as player/composer, and he's able to talk about the aesthetic elements common to Olivier Messiaen, Albert Ayler, and Sufi devotional music when talking about Renga, a group inspired by a haiku by American poet Anita Vergil ("not seeing/ the room is white/ until that red apple") and is named after an ancient Japanese collaborative poetic form. On a recent radio interview with on WMUA Radio in Amherst, Massachusetts, a discussion about Renga includes a history of the clarinet, which touches on the qualities and range of its sound and place in jazz history and how that narrative figures into the group's sound ideas (this conversation is hosted on Falzone's website). Just don't let the heady ideas that surround the group suggest that it's purely an intellectual pleasure.
Renga is a group highly informed and shaped by the jazz and music history that Falzone and all the players in Renga have amassed in their careers. They're all thoughtful, highly learned artists, but there's nary a smidgen of studied insularity in Renga's sound. So, yes, "The Room Is" features some amazingly nuanced and subtle group interaction that's informed by a wealth of thought, history, and virtuosity. But you don't have to be highly versed in jazz history, ethnomusically aware of the music of other cultures, or have an upper-degree appreciation of comparative poetics to recognize what to call it in plain English: absofuckinglutely gorgeous.