Songbird Suite is compelling enough upon first hearing to prompt closer scrutiny. This article originally appeared in The Wire 219 (May 2002).
SUSIE IBARRA TRIO
TZADIK ORACLES 2 CD
Radiance, the 1999 album by percussionist Susie Ibarra's first trio with violinist Charles Burnham and pianist Cooper-Moore, had its strong points, but was inconclusive as to the longterm prospects for her ensemble concept and compositions. Songbird Suite is sufficiently more compelling upon first hearing to prompt closer scrutiny of the two discs. Two generalisations can be made quickly: Ibarra has matured as a composer; and she has found collaborators in violinist Jennifer Choi and keyboardist Craig Taborn, who are arguably better suited to the unfolding trajectory of her music.
Ibarra has not dispensed with the strategic placement of bright themes and ebullient rhythms, which in large measure allowed Radiance to live up to its name. But, on Songbird Suite, these elements are pushed farther to the margins. "Azul" is a buoyant opener, with a soaring violin line propelled by Latin-tinged piano and dancing brushwork. "Passing Clouds" glides on a midtempo, vamp-anchored groove, above which Choi's sweet, high notes and trills float like a kite, closing the proceedings with a quaintly carefree vibe. However, the new facets of Ibarra's music are most readily apparent in the bulk of the programme. Just as Cooper-Moore's harp and homemade instruments extended the palette of Ibarra's first trio in the direction of indigenous music, Taborn's samples and electronics - buttressed by Ikue Mori's laptop wizardry on three pivotal tracks - pulls her music into more abstract realms, particularly on the otherworldly "Trance No 2". Ibarra is also surer in the minimal scripting of pieces like the suspenseful, texture-based "Trance No 3".
Nested in the middle of the programme is "Illumination", a simple, delicate melody progressively tugged at by Ibarra's ground-swelling, malleted toms and cymbals, Taborn's elongated arpeggios and Choi's yearning glisses and tentative pizzicato. It lays out the chemistry within Ibarra's trio in transparent terms. Each player contributes a part that is equal in its need of the others to create the whole: a fine premise for an ensemble.