Fifty-one years after the Summer of Love, a record from New Music Detroit (NMD) has arrived with an eye-catching tagline. “Whether you call it visceral or rockin’,” reads this promotional copy, “the music of Chicago-based composer Marc Mellits is never less than smokin’ hot.” Zac Brunell’s jacket art, with its mandala haloing a cartoon Mellits in shades, calls back to the age of psychedelia. The implication of badassery is clear. However, Smoke: Music of Marc Mellits makes good on that first adjective, visceral, most often. A recent entry in innova Recordings’ vast catalog, Smoke: Music of Marc Mellits represents NMD’s first foray into the recording studio. In these pieces from 2008 and 2009, Mellits continues his decades-long streak of conveying urgent physicality, even in slow jams.
A quintet linked with a network of guest players, New Music Detroit has enjoyed a long and fruitful association with Mellits. That closeness becomes audible right away. The composer has a credit as a co-producer, alongside NMD saxophonist Erik Rönmark. Percussionist Ian Ding served as head producer, mixing engineer, and one of three recording engineers. He and his colleagues have created a seamless listening experience, effacing traces of space in favor of a tight focus on the instruments.
Smoke overflows with sounds worth dwelling on, from Ding’s tight drum kit work in movement I to Rönmark’s soaring soprano sax solo in movement V. Movement VIII sounds like unalloyed heavy metal at first, thanks to Gyan Riley’s distorted guitar riffs. However, Daniel Bauch’s harmony line in the marimba throws a wrench into that straightforward interpretation. His part contributes an indispensable strangeness to this earworm of a finale.
In Red, Bauch and Ding work magic on marimbas. Highlights include the hammered-out chords of movement II and the beat shifts of movement VI. However, one of the record’s most striking moments–visceral, but neither rockin’ nor smokin’ hot–comes in movement IV, as the players’ mallet strokes become almost inaudible, dissolved away in a continuous stream of warm chords.
Tapas finds NMD cellist Úna O’Riordan allied with violinists Gina DiBello and Adrienne Rönmark and violist Samuel Bergman. The food metaphor feels apt for Mellits’ third string quartet, given the variety and small scale of the movements. “One,” with its Beethovenian seriousness, carries all the weight and density of a steak. The alternating elegance and acridness of “Two” suggest a salad in a strong vinaigrette. Later moments, such the pentatonic bloom of “Three” and the noble unfurling of “Five,” have a Romantic tinge. The players blend and coordinate so well that they sound like an established ensemble, and a formidable one at that.
Prime initially sounds like another series of miniatures, but later, its grooves begin to run together. Shannon Orme truly rocks on bass clarinet, dominating the ensemble sound alongside Rönmark on baritone sax. Vicky Chow achieves Nina Simone-level intensity as the piano part grows frenzied just past the three-minute mark. Around fourteen minutes in, a percussion break for Ding and Bauch yields as much airy resonance as impact noise. It’s the first time on this record that listeners hear the room itself ringing. If any one piece on this album makes an exceptionally strong case for Mellits’ art, it’s this one.
Not every moment on the album inspires awe. Movement III of Smoke, for instance, finds Mellits stacking a repeated figure for saxophone atop a disco groove, and the contrast between the rigid tune and the smooth accompaniment proves distracting. However,Smoke: Music of Marc Mellits excels in every way, from the recording and mixing to the first-rate playing. It may not always rock in a purist’s sense of the verb. Visceral, though–that word, with its reference to deep feeling and gut-level impact, applies throughout.