Pandemonium: A Review

Barry Wallenstein's PandemoniumBarry Wallenstein's Pandemonium
Cadence Jazz Records CJR 1194
Personnel: Barry Wallenstein, voice
John Hicks, piano
Curtis Lundy, bass
Vincent Chancey, French Horn
Daniel Carter, sax & trumpet
Serge Pesce, guitar accommodee

by Vernon Frazer

Barry Wallenstein's jazz poetry blends the smoky noir of the jazz mystique with the contemporary advances of the music's vanguard. His voice exudes the hipster's savvy sensibility, its cockiness and its angst, and a warmth as cozy as the night's embrace. Its breathy top and gritty bottom resonate like the last voice you hear at closing time in the club, on the nearly empty street or wherever the after hours take you. His musical accompaniment blends bop-rooted structures with free form textures that synthesize swing and intimacy.

Pandemonium, Wallenstein's fifth recording, extends the poet's basic concept to incorporate a music of increased textural density that lends bite and shading to his assured recitations. His unorthodox front line of French Hornist Vincent Chancey and saxophonist-trumpeter Daniel Carter combine with guitarist Serge Pesce to create an ensemble whose textural interplay carries a New Music edge. Pesce's guitar accommodee employs tools, violin bows and other materials that extend his expressive pallette well beyond the acoustic guitar's traditional range.

The band's discordant ensembles represent pandemonium, a texture that threads through the CD's fifteen tracks and seventeen poems, serving as a point of reference and a springboard for the interplays of voice with smaller combinations within the ensemble. Wallenstein's extensive literary background suggests that pandemonium could refer to the capitol of Hell in Milton's Paradise Lost, extending the word's customary meaning beyond chaos to an environment from which voices, human and instrumental, express a wide range of emotions that rise from or recede into the recurring din. It could also mean the chaotic forces unleashed by the opening of Pandora's Box. The result remains the same.

The opening medley's solo alto intro suggests a feeling of isolation before John Hicks' piano vamps under "Blues Again," a poem of love and its lonely aftermath. The segue to "Lorelei" juxtaposes Curtis Lundy's plaintive arco bass against the poet's porrait of an idealized woman rising from a role of Fate's dice, suggesting a love both real and beyond reach in the world outside Pandemonium's gambling dens.

Orchestral pandemonium surrounds Wallenstein's caustic recitation of "A Little Bunch of Could Haves," a listing of repeated misunderstandings that have kept the person addressed by the narrator from residing in a tenuous "house of good cards." The pandemonium surfaces again midway through the medley of "At Thoor Ballylee" and the CD's title piece, and again at medley's end. A ruminative piano-bass duo backs the narrator's journey to the visionary poet's residence where he feels "Yeat's vexations and prophetic woe" coming to pass in "my town, my mind, blow upon blow." After the ensemble's sonic commentary on the closing line, Lundy's bass leads to the opening of the Pandora's Box that is "Pandemonium" with "the nation's armies slouch in lassitude and fog" alluding to the war in Iraq and "tongues of flame" alluding to the Hell elaborated on during the ensemble's uproar.

The "box," which "became famous for its nightclub/late nighttime release" hints that "Drinking," a poem whose lusty spirits spill over a rollicking blues, affirms both life and its terminal consequence as it begs the Reaper to "let me empty the glass and your stoke be swift and clean."

The "release" also poisons the environment, as "The Job, 2008" envisions a worker of the near future describing his job of counting bodies in air "so sulfurous, thick and unworthy" that one can assume "the disappeared" died from breathing it. Told over a backdrop of scratchy arco bass and eerie bowed guitar, the poem turns back to the present day by referring to a previous grim job that might be occurring in the present, one that "was not a job to talk about."

Wallenstein tells tales that are celebratory and cautionary at the same time, creating a unified work whose roots lie in the themes unleashed in "Pandemonium." The music comments on the themes and amplifies them when the poet's language ends, achieving a poignant and pointed synthesis. As the threads of its seemingly disparate beginnings weave together, Pandemonium emerges as a brilliant concept album rooted deeply in literature, music and myth. Its tone resonates with the reality of the voice last you hear at the end of the night. Listen to it.

Vernon Frazer has published eight books of poetry, three books of fiction and three recordings of jazz poetry. His most recent works are the long poems Holiday Idylling, Avenue Noir and IMPROVISATIONS, the now-completed work which he introduced in his 2001 reading at the Poetry Project at St. Mark's Church. His web site is Frazer is married and lives in South Florida.