released February 2, 2016
Eric Platz: drums, percussion, mbira
James Falzone: clarinet, shruti box
Leanne Zacharias: cello
Don Benedictson: electric bass
LINER NOTES by Timothy Schuler
Note: for a longer profile of Eric Platz, from which these notes are drawn, visit www.ericplatz.com
Like maps, all music has a scale. Not just a set of pitches but a spatial corollary. The amount of time one gives a note, or puts between two of them, correlates directly with the scope of the landscape imagined by the listener. A drone becomes a vista, the edges of the sound like the measureless horizon. More frenetic arrangements evoke something closer to the pace at which we experience our lives, a musical expression of our inability to hold on to any one moment before it is subsumed by the next, gone as quickly as an unsustained note.
On his adventurous and cinematic debut, Life After Life, drummer and composer Eric Platz moves seamlessly between these imagined scales, juxtaposing them against one another like some cartographic impossibility. This movement becomes a sort of narrative device, the start of a chapter, or its end, and the tension and drama in the shifting perspective begins to tell a story of its own.
Platz composed the music on Life After Life for its three principal players: Chicago-based clarinetist James Falzone (KLANG, Allos Musica, The Renga Ensemble); cellist Leanne Zacharias (Music for Spaces, Correction Line Ensemble); and himself. A veteran improviser, Platz is a drummer and percussionist of incredible nuance, a skill he honed over several decades as a sideman, touring with acts in and outside the jazz world. If the music on Life After Life is a descendant of the Third Stream and contemporary improvisation, it is also a natural culmination of Platz’s prismatic interests, refracted through his affinities for jazz, classical, folk, and world musics.
He began playing drums at age 10, shortly after his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware. Despite his age, he began studying with a percussionist from the Philadelphia Orchestra, who turned him on to Tony Williams. He fell in love with Miles Davis’s The Complete Concert 1964: My Funny Valentine + Four and More. “I remember listening to the drumming, and it was so musical,” Platz says. “It was this continuous narrative. That’s what I wanted to do.”
Platz became a drummer in high demand, backing singer-songwriter Carrie Rodriguez and jazz saxophonist Joe Lovano and teaching at places like the University of Massachusetts and Providence College. He studied with Bob Moses and Danilo Perez and played with legends like Lucinda Williams and Bill Frisell. He co-led the free jazz trios FourMinusOne and Fat Little Bastard and played with the New York Andalus Ensemble and Asefa, which focused on the musical traditions of North Africa and southern Spain.
Then in 2009, Platz made a move that upended his musical career. Pianist Michael Cain, whom Platz considers a friend and mentor, told him of an opening at Brandon University’s School of Music in Canada, where Cain was teaching. Platz applied and got the job.
Unlike Boston, there wasn’t really a jazz scene in Brandon outside the university. The nearest clubs were two hours away in Winnipeg. “In Boston, I was playing so much and with so many different people—I felt like, creatively, I had the outlets covered,” Platz says. In Brandon, he wasn’t sure how to plug in. “Jazz sort of by definition requires a community, and being a jazz drummer had been such a defining factor for me. A lot of my ego was wrapped up in it. In some ways, it was a bit of a crisis for me. And I think it still is. I’m still working through it.”
Despite the absence of a jazz scene, Brandon did eventually offer up a rich roster of collaborators, and the compositions on Life After Life began swirling around in Platz’s head in 2013, when he invited Falzone to Brandon for a performance of the clarinetist’s music and asked Zacharias to join.
“I knew James and Leanne would gel as people, but hearing them play music together was amazing,” he says. “They're both so adventurous, and they express themselves honestly and with so much intensity. You’re not in doubt about what they’re trying to say. So from that moment on, I was thinking about finding ways to make more music with the two of them.”
Thematically, Life After Life is a study of juxtapositions, exploring themes of doubt, reincarnation, spirituality, and violence. In “Blood Meridian,” Platz considers the relationship between opposing elements: violence and serenity, horror and beauty, instinct and intellect. He conjures the sense of chaos and uncertainty felt by readers of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name, which follows a group of scalp-hunters riding along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-1800s and moves seamlessly between lurid depictions of graphic violence and poetic meditations on the landscapes of the West.
Echoing the novel, the composition has distinct chapters, its first five minutes a dissonant drone that evokes the lifelessness of McCarthy’s starched desert, foreshadowing the coming violence. Closing the track is an exacting solo by Platz, evoking war drums with toms and an almost tribal physicality. Behind him, the drone returns, and like McCarthy, he seems to be acknowledging the eternal life of violence.
Other tracks find the composer drawing from his own life’s experience. “Redwood Vesper” is inspired by a trip to the Tall Trees Grove in Redwood National Forest, which became for Platz a kind of pilgrimage. Because there is no vehicular access, visitors can only reach the grove on foot, and doing so requires special permission. When he got there, “there were these deep, deep bass tones resonating through the grove,” he says. “I’d never really experienced anything like it, sonically. I really wanted to have an instrument with me to explore the acoustics.”
The musician spent several hours there, marveling at the enormity of the trees, the way they seemed to exist far outside any human scale of time. “I wondered what kind of consciousness existed in that place,” he says. “It’s hard to put it in words, but there are those moments that have a spiritual component to them, or you ponder something that’s way beyond your comprehension—those will often lead to musical thoughts for me.”
The title track—three different versions of which appear on the record—is an exploration of alternate courses of destiny. Like “Blood Meridian,” it was inspired by a novel. In the book, written by Kate Atkinson, a character dies repeatedly only to be resurrected in what seems to be yet another possible existence. The story is told in discrete scenes, any lessons to be drawn from their sum obscured. “Life After Life” takes a similar approach, its long melody twining in and out of improvised sections, broken up and interrupted, out of place and time.
The composer John Luther Adams once said that he heard in Edgard Varese’s music “deserts,” “oceans,” and “forbidding mountains of sound,” language that contains within it the suggestion of a certain scale. The music of Eric Platz requires a similar lexicon. On Life After Life, one hears similarly vast landscapes as well as moments that feel almost molecular, the instruments in constant motion, like electrons dancing around a melodic nucleus.
Adams also often told young composers to immerse themselves in the things they didn’t understand, and Platz has proven himself a composer willing to wade into the unknowable. He does not do so alone. If Life After Life finds Platz contemplating questions of enormous complexity, it also finds him with tremendous companions, who bring levity and life to music that might have crumpled under its own weight, and who transform what might have been a monologue into a conversation of astounding depth.
Timothy A. Schuler
Recorded October 2-5, 2014 at Unity Gain Productions (Roseisle, Manitoba) by Don Benedictson.
Mixed and edited by Don Benedictson and Eric Platz at Unity Gain Productions
Mastering by Harris Newman at Grey Market Mastering (Montreal, Quebec)
Cover art by Ben Davis (palimpsest II, charcoal, ink and white charcoal on paper, 2011)
Many thanks to James, Leanne, Don and Harris for all of their contributions to this recording project. Thanks to Ben Davis for use of his work palimpsest II in the design. A special thanks to James for all of his support in releasing this recording on Allos Documents.
This recording was made possible with a grant from the Brandon University Research Committee.