Long-time independent label Cuneiform Records first achieved its considerable reputation by showcasing European Rock in Opposition (RIO) bands such as Heldon and Univers Zero, as well as a variety of rock/jazz fusion music on both sides of the Atlantic. But there is no specific Cuneiform “sound,” and over the years, the label has featured some first class jazz improv music which has little or no relationship to rock music’s more aggressive forms and sensibilities. Harrison and Feliciati’s Holy Abyss is such a CD, featuring flexible, understated drumming from Dan Weiss and nuanced acoustic bass from Feliciati, with thoughtful, harmonically complex solos from Harrison on electric guitar, Cuong Vu on trumpet and Roy Powell on acoustic piano and occasional Hammond B-3 organ. Harrison and Feliciati are each responsible for three compositions on the program, with Vu contributing the other two.
Holy Abyss is such a subtle, carefully crafted CD that its virtues may at first go unnoticed. Melody lines are implied rather than stated, as is the rhythmic pulse, with Weiss often improvising and playing around the beat. Tempos in several pieces shift from stanza to stanza; bass or drums might switch to double-time – or half-time. The program consists of a mixture of ballads and waltz tempos, although at least one track, “Small Table Rules,” introduces a touch of abstract funk, with Powell taking a fine, oblique solo on piano and Vu following on trumpet with fat, pear-shaped tones initially which gradually evolve into a bit of supercharged squalling. Harrison has exquisite control of his guitar and on the opening piece, Requiem for an Unknown Soldier, he displays a lovely use of harmonics reminiscent of Terje Rypdal. Vu also has an impressive command of his instrument and a great musical imagination. He is a warm and melodic player who is not afraid to expand his sonic palette with growls, smears and other “outside” techniques as the occasion demands. There are no long solos, even on pieces that are eight minutes in length. Instead, group members work off the intricate compositions, stating themes and supporting one another in a shifting kaleidoscope of textures and musical colours. By the way, “carefully crafted” does not mean bloodless; there’s passion in the group’s music, but no grandstanding or cheap thrills.
Vu and Harrison give the CD much of its warmth, with Powell’s Hammond B-3 also providing a mellow vibe on pieces such as “Saturday Night in Pendleton.” And with Vu formerly a member of Pat Metheny’s group, it’s no surprise that at least some pieces on Holy Abyss sound as if they could have been lifted from a good Metheny recording. Elsewhere, when the music is at its most pensive and ethereal (as on the opening Requiem, Vu’s Faith or Feliciati’s That Evening), the vibe is that of a classic North European ECM recording. This is an elegant post-bop CD, start to finish – easy on the ears, but with some real substance. Recommended.