REVIEW: Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler (Ex-Kronos Quartet) 'Something of Life' (Innova): Philip Glass, John Zorn, Glenn Kotche and More

By Jon Sobel on Nov 24, 2014 11:15 AM EST

Cellist Jeffrey Zeigler, formerly of the storied Kronos Quartet, has delivered a varied and forceful solo debut recording. The six pieces on Something of Life (Innova Recordings) by six composers including Philip Glass, John Zorn and Glenn Kotche demonstrate the breadth of Zeigler's interests and of what he and his cello can do, though without the distraction of excess virtuosic gimmickry. Instead he dives headlong into the composers' visions, with gratifying results.

"Glaub," the powerful opener, a stormy, densely atmospheric duet with composer and electric guitarist Felipe Perez Santiago, develops an eerie feedbacky opening into rich folds of velvety thunder, making a strong statement for both Santiago's imagination and Zeigler's commitment.

Paola Prestini's "Listen, Quiet" uses percussion and pre-recorded, mostly unintelligible human conversation along with wailing cello lines to create a highly rhythmic, Africa-inflected suite. While percussionist Jason Treuting sticks to insistent if intriguingly off-kilter rhythms, Zeigler's cello sings a succession of complaints, lullabies and pizzicato suggestions. A final section pits a deep cello ostinato against a sound like a manual typewriter, suggesting a juxtaposition of the primal throbs of nature with the intellectual process of composition.

John Zorn's "Babel," five minutes of aggressive sawing suggests an instrument being ground to its elemental substance, as a second plucked voice dances in the dust. The lack of a self-important-sounding conceptual description/justification for this piece in the liner notes is refreshing. And its fury provides an excellent contrast with the Bach-like solemnity of Philip Glass's "Orbit" which follows. How, exactly, astrophysicist Mario Livio detects "the silence of infinite space" in the stolid 3/4 of the piece's pastoral groan is beyond me, but that's the nature of liner notes; Zeigler certainly does give it his emotional all, reminding me of Simone Dinnerstein's daringly legato interpretations of Bach while showing off the rich beauty of the cellist's tone.

In "Shadow Lines" Gity Razaz uses pre-recorded cello and electronics and delay effects to set off the fundamental tones of the "live" cello. Tensely melodic, jumpily atmospheric, pocked with bursts of lightning-fast high-register figures, it acquires the feel of a chamber piece.

The long final selection, by Glenn Kotche and featuring the composer on drums and percussion, uses "found" sounds (footsteps, room sounds, a distant accordion) and repetitive rhythms to build a work with a theatrical feel, divided not so much into movements as into scenes with different characters and situations. Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata makes an appearance, then fades into a melange of street sounds and minimalistic drudge-rock that brings the Velvet Underground to mind. This then locks into the rhythm of footsteps in an enlightening passage that blurs the distinction between artificially constructed music and found sounds. The drum kit and backbeat reassert themselves decisively, yet a final scene returns to the streetscape of the opening, touched by what could almost be an air raid siren, a last hint of Beethoven, and then the suggestion that the cellist is putting his instrument back into its case and walking off. Curtain.

Altogether the selection on this disc offer a stirring mix of imagery, techniques, atmospheres and rhythms. Zeigler's choice of works and collaborators speaks to a level of creative ambition worthy of his virtuosity. That may not be surprising in a veteran of the Kronos Quartet's musical adventures, but it's gratifying and impressive nonetheless.

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Tagscellist, cello, Jeffrey Zeigler, Kronos Quartet, Something of Life, Innova, Philip Glass, John Zorn, Glenn Kotche

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