Vol. 29 Issue 2 Reviews
Neil Leonard: Timaeus

Compact disc, 2001, Cedar Hill Records CHR 316; available from Cedar Hill Records, P.O. Box 1070, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts 02130, USA; fax (+1) 617-522-2454; electronic mail nleonard@berklee.edu; Web www.neilleonard.com/.

Ross Feller
Oberlin, Ohio, USA

CD CoverNeil Leonard, Associate Professor of Music at Berklee College of Music in Boston, is an experienced saxophonist and composer. His group, the Cyberjazz Ensemble has featured Badal Roy, tabla virtuoso from Miles Davis’s band, and David Bryant, synthesist with Ornette Coleman. As a saxophonist he’s performed with many well-known musicians including Don Byron, Robin Eubanks, Anton Fier, Victor Lewis, Marvin “Smitty” Smith, Lew Soloff, and Steve Swallow. His compositional work has been featured in a New York Times Sunday Edition article, Leonardo Music Journal, and Computer Music Journal.

Timaeus is Mr. Leonard’s debut compact disc featuring ten of his saxophone and computer compositions, spanning the decade from 1989-1999. All the music was recorded in real-time, without overdubbing. According to the composer’s liner notes, “each piece uses a unique computer program of my design that was developed to flow with the movement and moods of the given composition. Within this context the software listens or analyzes my performance and computes a compatible improvisation in real time.” His approach to computer-assisted, interactive design can be compared with similar real-time improvisational systems by other performer-composers such as the late Salvatore Martirano and trombonist George Lewis. Mr. Leonard’s rig for this CD included a Macintosh Powerbook 5300 running Max, and sound modules by Alesis, Kurzweil, and Roland.

The back cover of the CD package contains an endorsement-quote by George Russell, one of the best-known living jazz composers, and inventor of the Lydian-Chromatic Concept. According to Mr. Russell, “the explosive computer sounds of contemporary media, backed by a dead beat, worn out rhythm blasting at levels far beyond the FCC’s limit, succeed in beating the listener into a nervous wreck, contributing to life on earth being made ugly. In the midst of this carnage is a civilized musician who has taken on the gargantuan task of humanizing the computer. If anyone can ‘in-soulmate’ the computer in a manner which integrates it beautifully and subtly with the heart and soul of the human artist, that person is Neil Leonard.” Above Mr. Russell’s testimonial is a photograph of a vacant, staring Mr. Leonard performing on his alto saxophone in front of a video or slide of cupped, wet hands over a bowl, suggesting perhaps, his ability to capture a small trickle of substance in a world devoid of such things. Some might find this a bit bloated and self-important. Whatever the case, the testimonial and photo certainly raise the bar on a listener’s expectations.

The first composition, M87, seems to lay the groundwork for the rest of the CD. It begins with a quick, jazzy head in an extended kind of diatonicism. This is followed by scalar improvisations based on the same materials. Joining the saxophone are various marimba, dulcimer, glockenspiel, and bongo sounds. The latter break up the overall arrhythmic flow with brief, fragmented “grooves.” Significantly, the head does not come back at the end. After a brief coda the piece simply stops. The most intriguing aspects of this, and several other pieces of this collection, occur as Mr. Leonard’s lip glissandi are answered by metallic filter sweeps and portamento.

According to the composer, the second composition, Timaeus I, is “a study in automated improvisation using the Lydian-Chromatic Concept. The tuning of the scale expands and contracts in real-time to create glissando effects. Microtonal clusters gradually expand to form more familiar chord voicings.” After an effective, ballad-like opening featuring a sultry saxophone over an undulating computer drone, the saxophone begins to explore more scalar territory punctuated with glissandi. The sound modules follow the sax closely in harmony, themselves interrupted by more glissandi and filter sweeps. Timaeus II, the seventh piece on the disc, features a healthy dose of modal pitch-following. A salient mix of digital organ sounds comping in parallel, vintage analog synthesizer effects, and various bell timbres accompany the saxophone.

The title of the third composition, Caxionics, was derived from a blending of the words cancion, saxophone, and electronics. This piece features processed tenor saxophone and a tape and score by Ileana Perez Velazquez. Noteworthy as a collaboration, the format is essentially the same as the other works. However, here Mr. Leonard’s saxophone playing is much more angular, peppered with large dissonant leaps, multiphonics, squealing, and a wide registral and expressive range. Unfortunately poor engineering on this track makes his efforts sound anemic.

Three of the compositions on Timaeus (Sacred Bath I, II, and III) are from an electroacoustic soundtrack for a video by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons. The first begins with sampled water sounds, bells, and chimes. Then a low-pass filtered, ostinato pattern accompanies some ocarina wailing. It does this for a couple of minutes and then abruptly ends. Sacred Bath II uses interlocking rhythms taken from a four-bar pattern by Cuban percussionist Ernesto Rodriguez. Sacred Bath III uses short, looped samples that fade in and out, and other samples slowed down and digitally distorted.

The strongest pieces in this collection are Legacy: San Lazaro, which features some fine soprano saxophone playing, and Passage, in which all the sounds are synthesized in real-time and the tuning of the scales changes continually throughout the piece. The former work is also the longest at 10’36”. Mr. Leonard covers a wide timbral palette, developing his ideas in ways left untapped in the other shorter works. He credits Jymmie Merritt with the approach he takes to rhythmic improvisation found here. The effect is one in which the saxophone is locked in contrapuntal interplay with the computer’s urgently repeated pulse patterns. The latter track showcases some earthy alto playing over a backdrop of continual detuning. Add to this funk bass line references and one is left with a wonderful sense of sonic delirium. Also noteworthy is Inner Path, a soprano saxophone solo in which the Golden Mean was used to select Mr. Leonard’s melodic intervals. There is a balanced mix of concert and club. Favorable comparisons can be made with Anthony Braxton’s solo work.

Throughout Timaeus Mr. Leonard’s saxophone playing, with a few notable exceptions, is mostly scalar and pattern laden. Timbrally speaking, it sounds clean, tinny, and mildly experimental (i.e., his alto sounds like Steve Coleman or Belgium’s Fabricio Cassol). The saxophone is consistently present at the same amplitude level and spatialization, with minimal processing. It is always the driving force behind the computer sounds in each composition. This invariance is in contrast to the richness of relationships coming from his sound modules.

Timaeus is a worthwhile testament to performer/composer-computer interactivity and just how far we’ve come, but also how far we need to go in order to develop smarter instruments modeled after subtle types of expression from acoustic practice. This disc showcases both the expressive (human-like) and inexpressive (machine-like) aspects of current real-time improvisation systems. But even the most expressive examples are not on par with what Mr. Leonard does with his Cyberjazz Ensemble. After hearing this recording certain listeners will undoubtedly point to an apparent discrepancy between Mr. Leonard’s employment of sophisticated programming within the relatively unsophisticated and inflexible MIDI-based timbral environment. This drawback is also, perhaps, one of the CD’s charms.