Saturday, March 22, 2014


CD Review by John Pietaro

Sana Nagano Trio, “Inside The Rainbow”, independently released 2014

Sana Nagano-violin

Karl Berger-vibraphone

John Ehlis-guitar

Recorded, mixed and mastered by Ted Orr at Sertso Studio, Woodstock, NY January 2014.

Produced by Sana Nagano, Karl Berger

All compositions by Sana Nagano, Karl Berger, John Ehlis

Sana Nagano is the kind of improviser that recalls the very best of free violin, resurrecting the spirit of Billy Bang and the full breadth of modernism all in one fell swoop --of her bow. A mainstay of Karl Berger’s twenty-five member strong Improvisers Orchestra (where she regularly shares the space with the likes of Jason Hwang), here Nagano stands at center stage---the heart of a trio that includes Berger and another member of Karl’s large group, guitarist John Ehlis. The trio has a beautiful sense of oneness, allowing the violinist to lead the improvisational encounters, really journeys into unknown landscapes amidst burning colors and other-harmonic sounds.

Nagano explained that all of the pieces were freely improvised but with a nod toward composition, thus there are beautiful patterns which catch the ear, beckoning us along, as well as pointillistic forays based on staccato repetition. The title track is a prime example yet it drops off into a gentle legato strain just before suddenly coming to an end. Nagano states that she made use of the recording studio’s editing possibilities in the service of weaving the improvisations together into more of a focused, composed presentation, but there is no sense of “cheating” here. The intent was to create a free improv album that would be palatable to a wider range of listeners, in some smaller doses and toward a vision of completion. Bravo. The final result is most satisfying as we move through the selections, with at least a hint of a suite in the big picture. To that end, I would have enjoyed some of the themes to have returned in later cuts, offering a more clear rapprochement as the larger piece takes us through its many facets.

Nagano’s violin is clean, cutting, sinewy, regal, magical. This die-hard improviser grew from many years of formal training, all put to excellent use. Yet nothing seems to please her more than ripping into a burning improvisation. She clearly musses the conservatory up with Downtown in the best imaginable way. Her performances beyond this disc feature a full scope of the musical experience; it mystifies me that she is not getting the press she deserves. Nagano’s resume includes work with Joseph Jarman, Yusuf Lateef, Adam Rudolph, William Parker and an array of others in addition to Berger’s Orchestra where this writer (the percussionist of that large ensemble) first encountered her. Since then we have shared the stage in a band led by Rocco John Iacovone as well, and she never fails to achieve the highest level of invention.  

Though Karl Berger is by now the grand old(er) man of improvisation, with a resume that ranges from legendary work with Don Cherry to founding the Creative Music studio alongside his wife and partner poet, vocalist Ingrid Sertso and Ornette Coleman. In the still fairly concise circle of international free musicians, Berger’s great relevance is obvious, so it is always a treat to hear his vibraphone in a small group like this. As a vibraphonist myself, Karl has been a clear influence (Cherry’s “Symphony for Improvisers” explains a lot!) and on this disc his unique approach to the instrument is evident. When he desires to his ax sounds like glass or the echo of an ice cave. Alternating comfortably between pianistic chordal sustains and sharp attacks where his vibes act as a xylophone, Berger offers the history of avant mallet playing over these tracks.

Ehlis’ guitar is often terra firma with thumbed basslines laying down a bottom over which he drops chords and finger-picked motifs that explore the space about him and inspire the parts above. In the Berger Improvisers Orchestra, Ehlis is usually seen brandishing a mandolin, adjunct to the formidable section of violins and violas, but in this setting he is able to bring a wider range of sound to the fore. Terse textures that claim space only in the most supportive manner, Ehlis is the necessary third component to this ensemble, dark counterpart of Nagano and Berger’s upper range.

After carrying us through a compelling set of underground sounds, Nagano’s album closes off in classic style, with a pulsating dance into creative music that rises into another place before turning away and looking back at the listener in a pensive moment that steps, with conviction, into a tacit.


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