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Janel Leppin — Ensemble Volcanic Ash
(Cuneiform Rune 499, 2022, CD / DL)

by Peter Thelen, Published 2023-01-15

Ensemble Volcanic Ash Cover art

The casual observer may be aware of the Janel and Anthony CD, Where Is Home, and the album at hand, but Washington, DC based composer, cellist, multi-instrumentalist, and vocalist Janel Leppin has a fairly extensive discography as a composer, arranger, collaborator, guest, and session player, all in the last fifteen years or so — little of which I’ve heard first hand, though I expect that will change soon. She’s also a creative visual artist, as the art and images in the booklet for Ensemble Volcanic Ash will quickly evince. The seven-piece ensemble has been in the works for several years, and operates firmly in jazz territory, although it’s probably not like any jazz you’ve heard before, unless you’re on a steady diet of Alice Coltrane, which this does bear some similarities to, but not overwhelmingly so, as this is a purely instrumental endeavor with one foot in the world of chamber music as well, depending on the piece under consideration, all of which were composed by Leppin. For her part as a player, Leppin handles cello and keyboards, supported by the rhythm section of drummer Larry Ferguson and bassist Luke Stewart, along with her husband, guitarist Anthony Pirog. The soloists include Brian Settles on tenor sax, and Sarah Hughes on alto sax, and last but not least is harpist Kim Sator. Certainly an amazing group! The opener, “Children of the Water,” sets the stage, beginning the album with a short but beautiful melody for woodwinds, seemingly an introductory piece for its follow-on “Woven Forest,” a nine-minute full ensemble piece that introduces the jazz element and Settles and Hughes as the piece’s primary soloists, switching gears right in the middle to a faster paced tightly arranged romp for saxes, electric guitar, and cello, with the rhythm section driving hard behind it. Just as beautifully melodic as the opener, “Volcano Song” ties a soft, colorful, highly emotional approach together with string harp and guitar supporting the woodwinds out front. Even more gentle is the beautifully detailed melodic piece “I Pose” which floats along softly for the first three minutes or so, then takes a firm turn for the heavy, almost symphonic, with wailing saxes pushing the energy ever higher, until it returns to a gentle close. Other standouts include the playful “Silvia’s Path,” the laid back “Leaving the Woods,” and the subtle orchestrations of “A Palace for Alice.” Not only are Leppin’s expressive compositions providing the backbone for Ensemble Volcanic Ash, but these tracks are delivered by an incredible group of players — this is a set that delivers fresh insights with each repeated listen.

Filed under: New releases, 2022 releases

Related artist(s): Janel Leppin, Anthony Pirog

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