Ben Koen & the Unity Ensemble: Reliance

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“His music will speak for itself, as it promises to make an impact on the jazz world and contribute to the history of the music” -David Murray, World Saxophone Quartet

This recording project was a wonderful experience and an engaging musical exploration. I’m happy for the reviews written in Arts Dialog (by Sonja van Kerkhoff) and in Cadence Magazine Review of Jazz & Blues: Creative Improvised Music, Vol. 25 No. 1.

Here are some excerpts of those reviews.

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Arts Dialogue:On the “Reliance” CD by American Jazz saxophonist Ben Koen and the Unity Ensemble, the first and last tracks are from a session of which there are more on the CD “110 Bridge Street”….Check out his latest CD, “Songs From Green Mountain” where he plays meditative runs on a number of flutes. The Reliance CD is not just straight jazz (if there is such a thing) but rather a CD with 3 distinctive and diverse musical styles. The first and final tracks are a saxophone and trombone ( with Joe Fiedler) duo being played using circular breathing to create an evocative and subliminal soundscape. Then there are a number of Coltrane-like improvisational jazz numbers where rhythm and melody constantly play off each other creating a sense of intense passion. In the middle of all this are two jazz-like settings of the Hidden Words. “O Son of Spirit” is first sung a cappela. Then the saxophone repeats the melody with each of the four instruments coming into each cycle of the melody to add rhythmic complexity to a piece that started out as a simple melody. As a listener you can try and focus on the original melody as the piece becomes more improvisational or your can just go with the flow. It is a sensitive musical compliment/interpretation for words about where we should begin in order to develop spiritually (ie: My first counsel is this. Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart).

Koen’s compositions use improvisational twists and turns not just to embellish the melody but to create dancing worlds of rhythm and melody within other worlds of rhythm and melody. The title of Koen’s band the “Unity Ensemble” was inspired by Dizzy Gillespie’s own band called the “United Nations Orchestra…”

~Arts Dialogue, June 2002, pages 5 and 6.

Cadence Magazine: A mixture of handfuls of hard bop and a sprinkling of free Jazz forms the recipe Koen concocts on [Reliance], and he stirs this pot quite effectively. Using the quartet format on most selections, he produces a hard driving set with eight original compositionsIf boldness of tone is the criterion, his playing falls into the heavyweight category. Koen blows with authority at gale-force volume on the faster tunes, yet the presence of his power is also felt when he plays at ballad speed. In a diverse structural and musical move, he adds Fiedler on trombone for the opening and closing numbers. The dual tenor/trombone drone replicates the launeddas pitch to penetrate deeply into the senses with dirge-like reverberations.

The performance is significantly augmented through Koen’s selection of sidemen. Jackson matches the leader’s power structure on piano by playing in dense, full-bodied clusters. His pounding keyboard attack bodes well with Koen’s approach, yielding significant substance to the compositions. On a few occasions, Jackson gets exploratory, but his team role is not designed for extensive wandering. Hopkins provides considerable strength on bass as well, playing complex lines that form a concrete foundation on all selections. Two short poetic vocals by Owens, which take the form of Baha’i prayers, are used to introduce selections with the spiritual sound quality of early writings by Pharoah Sanders. Again, the bass patterns of Hopkins permeate deeply into the songs while Koen alternates between guttural lows and screeching highs.  Koen has power to spare on tenor and his compositions are meaty. This combination gives the performance body and weight. The recording falls into the accessible yet innovative category with teasing sections of freedom cloaked within the song form.

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