Collage Project: Off Brand

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Collage Project (Aidan Plank - bass, Daniel Bruce - electric guitar, Daniel Lippel - guitar, and guests Nathan Douds - drums, Noa Even - saxophone, and Chris Anderson - trombone) was born out of collaborations from the late 1990s and early 2000s in Cleveland, Ohio. Aidan Plank, Dan Bruce, and Dan Lippel gravitated towards each other musically through a shared conviction that free improvising need not be restricted by vocabulary and written material in improvised music need not be confined to conventional forms or stylistic boundaries. Over the last several years, the three have reunited to bring together their diverse sets of experiences in contemporary classical music, jazz, and other stylistic contexts. Off Brand is a recording defined by the unique musical space shaped by these diverse perspectives. Three guests, trombonist Chris Anderson, saxophonist Noa Even, and drummer Nathan Douds, join the trio for this project, bringing their own unique sensibilities.

The album opens with a Lippel composition, For Manny, which is anchored by a rhythmically ambiguous seventeen beat cycle that can be divided in several ways. Planed harmonies float above a repeating three note bass figure before a slithering melody weaves through the internal groupings of the pulse. A contrasting middle section featuring an off-kilter figure in acoustic guitar and bass and angular squeals in the electric guitar is written to be performed additively; the performers leave out much of the written material in the first few rounds of the section, dropping in hints as place markers and adding wry commentary. As the section grows, the obscured pieces of the puzzle begin to become audible, and in the last two iterations, we hear the phrase in its entirety. Bruce ignites the da capo with a searing distorted electric guitar solo before a limber Douds solo leads into a reprise of the opening, subtly infected by material from the middle section.

The first of three free improvisations follows, Free #2, performed by Plank, Bruce, and Lippel. Textures emerge from prevailing and often repeated material, and evolve serendipitously. Free #2 was recorded in upstate New York in 2017, during a short tour the trio did that codified some of their shared sensibilities.

Dan Bruce contributes the album’s most structurally ambitious works, taking advantage of the unique space created by the presence of acoustic nylon string guitar and electric guitar (often with effects) to create long term motivic relationships. Inner Androids, which adds Anderson’s trombone, is Bruce’s musical exploration of the debate between the philosophies of Idealism and Materialism. Each member of the ensemble is struggling between “free will” (improvisational sections) and automated response (represented by the drone). Arco bass and trombone introduce the drone in a wavering unison while the acoustic guitar plays a series of searching voicings. The introduction of the first melodic theme establishes the rhythmic pulse. This transitions to a new section as the acoustic guitar and bass represent the “drone” by supplying a percolating pad of static harmonies while trombone and electric guitar play a soulful unison melody. An improvised section follows featuring trombone that offers the most “freedom” for the musicians. The electric guitar playfully supports the bone solo, while short bursts of mechanical sounds are beginning to break through. Eventually the guitar gives way to the drone, bringing the tune back to the somber music from earlier and providing a haunting backdrop for a final melodic restatement.

Free #5, played by Plank, Douds, and Lippel, unfolds over a straight eighth note groove, with conversational lines bouncing back and forth between guitar and bass.

Adaptation Dance, another Bruce original, brings saxophonist Noa Even into the fold for an infectious funk groove that builds, and then comes apart, over a number of repetitions. A transitional arpeggiated duo passage in the guitars ushers in a fluid Plank solo before a climactic free section over the initial groove featuring Even’s avant-garde influenced wailing. Bruce explains, “I wanted to write a funk tune for a social function or dance in which the participants do not understand how to read or react to social cues. It is my way of examining humans’ need to fit in, and learning how to embrace the fact that sometimes you don’t need to. It’s also a musical expression of how I feel inside when my wife makes me dance.”

In Free #8, Even, Bruce, and Lippel occupy different musical spaces, as if talking near, but not with, each other. Even explores subtle, punctuated extended techniques on her horn, Bruce repeats a wistful, melodic phrase, and Lippel skitters around in prismatic, modernist phrases. Dialogue finally arrives at the end of the improvisation when Even’s imploring cries are echoed by bent notes in Lippel’s guitar.

Aidan Plank’s Open Glimpse contains the most expansive music on Off Brand. After a solo bass introduction, the A section consists of a mixed meter ground bass figure supporting a modal, contrapuntal melody. Bruce enters for an electric guitar solo over a B section that shifts its emphasis to a groove based pedal point.

Lippel’s composition Hard Boiled Donut was inspired by a quote by the legendary Argentinean-American composer Mario Davidovsky about how composition involves bringing two dissimilar things together (like a hard-boiled egg and a donut). In this piece, the donut is the disjointed hybrid ensemble textures in the A section and the slinking lines of the jazz waltz in section B are the hard-boiled egg. When combined they form a “hard-boiled donut,” in which the holes are filled in by passagework, gradually revealed through additive improvisation as in For Manny. Davidovsky passed away at the age of 85 a few days before this tune was written.

Plank’s four movement Quartet for Bela, heard here in a duo setting with Lippel, is inspired by the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok. The first and third movements feature halting unison melodies that capture a gruff component of Bartok’s musical persona. The second and fourth movements are more reflective, written in contrapuntal lines, as if to nostalgically recall music that had never been written.

-- D. Lippel/D. Bruce

"Listeners who crave a bit of classical rigor with their jazz—or, conversely, those who enjoy improvisational freedom within a classical chamber setting—should investigate the work of the Collage Project. Built around the trio of guitarists Daniel Bruce and Daniel Lippel and bassist Aidan Plank, and complemented by drummer Nathan Douds, saxophonist Noa Even and trombonist Chris Anderson, the group thrives in the space between formalism and freedom, and with whip-smart compositions perfect for harnessing their respective talents, Off Brand is an enticing and heady mix of musical modes.

Bruce's previous release, Earthshine (ears&eyes, 2017) showcased his compositional acumen and compelling sound. He's a guitarist as attuned to texture as he is tunefulness, and that's a useful trait when partnered with Lippel, whose work as guitarist for the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) gives him a platform to explore some of the most creative streams of current classical music. Here his crisply-played nylon string guitar offers the perfect contrast with Bruce's nuanced electric guitar and electronic effects. Plank brings not only a finely-honed jazz sensibility, reflected in his crafty composition "Open Glimpse," he also provides the album's concluding four-movement suite, "Quartet for Bela," played in tandem with Lippel, an homage to Bartok in an improvisatory spirit.

Structure is crucial to each piece on the album; there's no unhinged freedom here, even on the three relatively brief free improvisations, which involve various trio-based configurations of the musicians. Case in point is "Free #8," a piece played by Even, Bruce and Lippel. While Bruce develops a subtle repeated figure and Lippel offers nimble extrapolations, Even joins the conversation with a wide range of extended techniques, none of which come close to melody, but rather use texture and abstraction to complement the other players. It fits together as well as it does as a result of the musicians' acute listening abilities; the shape of the piece emerges organically rather than being determined in advance, but it's no less structured for that.

The most noteworthy highlights are the lengthier pieces—the ones which give the musicians the fullest chance to navigate the intricacies of these thoughtful compositions. Lippel's "For Manny" is a terrific start to the album, built around an engaging rhythmic pattern that makes room both for Lippel's affecting lyrical phrases and Bruce's skillful interjections, before Bruce gets a scorching solo turn. "Hard Boiled Donut" is Lippel's second piece on the album, and it's even more inventive, with shifting rhythmic undercurrents supporting rich ensemble collaboration. Bruce's "Inner Androids" and "Adaptation Dance" are just as good. The former is a moody, slow- building piece with a few twists and turns and a searching solo from Anderson, while the latter is a catchy groover with a tricky theme and some pugnacious bursts from Even after an energized Plank solo. There's nothing second-rate or inferior about the music on Off Brand; the album's self-effacing title notwithstanding, this is a very fine recording."

-- Troy Dostert, All About Jazz

"There’s a fascinating and colorful gray area between jazz and contemporary classical music, as evidenced by this past summer’s album Off Brand from the Collage Project. Joining bassist Aidan Plank, electric guitarist Dan Bruce, and guitarist Daniel Lippel are three guests — drummer Nathan Douds, saxophonist Noa Even, and trombonist Chris Anderson — together harvesting a bounty of unique and compelling combinations of sound.

The playlist mostly alternates between free improvisations and original works by members of the core trio. A couple of those tracks fall more cleanly into genre boundaries than others. On the jazz side, there’s Plank’s Open Glimpse, while Free #8 leans into contemporary classical with bold and boisterous extended techniques, especially from Even’s saxophone.

But on most of the disc, bits of language from either side intermingle in a decidedly fresh way. It’s not just those two styles either: we taste the folk idioms of Bartók in a duo version of Plank’s Quartet for Béla, and we hear electric guitar riffs with a hint of classic rock in a few tracks, including the excellent opener, Lippel’s For Manny.

One of the most impressive moments of the album comes in the B section of that work, where Plank, Bruce, Lippel, and Douds trade off and overlap with quick bits of material. The result is like a modern take on a Mozart operatic finale — all the characters saying their piece at once, in a way that’s both thrillingly chaotic and somehow still coherent, compositional gold.

As for the performances, these players have it all: a nuanced expressiveness, a variety of colors, and a potent virtuosity. The writing itself is just as impressive. There are no sudden changes just for changes’ sake, and rarely does any section linger too long. Instead, both the free improvisations and the composed works evolve organically and creatively, often catching you off guard in a satisfying way.

On a more granular level, be sure to listen closely for the interesting doublings that dot these works like treasures. Bruce’s Inner Androids offers a few: the bowed bass joined by long tones in the trombone to start things off, and later the unisons between trombone and electric guitar. And how about the combo of saxophone and electric guitar in Bruce’s Adaptation Dance, the kind of sound that makes you think for a moment — wait, what is that?

That’s a gratifying question that might come to mind a few times over the course of the album, as you encounter the new territory and new sounds continuously carved out by these musicians."
-- Jarrett Hoffman, Cleveland Classical, 11/2020

"Dan Lippel never ceases to amaze me. Even as he tirelessly enriches the musical universe with his work for New Focus Recordings, he finds time to make music as fantastic as this album, a collaboration with old friends, Aidan Plank (bass) and Dan Bruce (electric guitar), and guests. From the first track I knew Off Brand would be essential listening for any fans of Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, or others exploring Venn diagrams where jazz, prog-rock, and classical meet and meld. Lippel's For Manny combines his tart and swinging nylon string acoustic with Bruce's fiery electric, driven hard by Nathan Douds' splashy drums. It's a knockout, and the rest of the album, whether improvised or composed, remains at that high level while exploring different moods with an overall lightness of touch that's very inviting. All the playing is great, but Off Brand is especially a feast for lovers of the guitar in all its multifarious incarnations."

- Jeremy Shatan, An Earful, July 2020

"Collage Project is Dan Bruce (electric guitar), Dan Lippel (nylon-string guitar) and Aidan Plank (bass). Their collaboration started near the end of the 90s, sharing “a conviction that free improvising need not be restricted by vocabulary and written material in improvised music need not be confined to conventional forms or stylistic boundaries.” For this debut recording, they are guested by Noa Even (saxophone), Chris Anderson (trombone) and Nathan Douds (drums). Lippel, Bruce and Plank each contribute with two compositions. The compositions are interspersed with three improvisations in different trio line ups. What are they up to? Call it chamber music shaped by classical compositional principles, combined with elements of free improvisation, jazz and rock. The inventive works presented here reflect their reunion-phase (2015 - 2019). They take advantage of the broad experience each one built up in the years before. They offer us intelligent thought-over – a little academic – compositions and improvisations dealing above all with structure. The performers are very skilled and give life to their eclectic and stylistically diverse constructions. ‘For Manny’ is one of the longer works composed by Lippel, an engaging game of rhythmic complexity. The acoustic and electric guitar has an important role in most of the works and makes a fine contrast. So this work should appeal especially to lovers of the guitar. A fine document."

-- Vital Weekly, DM, October 2020

Track 2 recorded by Jeremy Backofen at Kirton Farm Studios, Germantown, NY 3/17

All other tracks recorded by Eric Koltnow at Tri-C Studios, Cleveland, OH (tr. 9-12 on 12/2015, all other tracks 9/2019)

Mixed and mastered by Brian Schwab schwabmusic.com

Design and layout by Matt Perko mattperko.com

Thanks to Adam Pierce (studio) and Moppa Elliott (bass)

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