All too many performers working under the new-age rubric feel their primary job is to put people to sleep, or at least to relax a listener's brain until it's as vital and reactive as a strand of vermicelli. But that doesn't mean the style lacks possibilities: Not all music needs to occupy the foreground, nor must it be confined to linear structures. Moreover, any art form that encourages a user to look inward instead of simply processing and then discarding the information provided shouldn't be dismissed lightly, as these two discs ably demonstrate.
Of course, both Ingram Marshall, a neoclassical composer modern enough to infuse several of his works with found material, and Trygve Seim, a saxophonist toiling in the jazz field, would likely bristle at being lumped in the new-age camp. But both offer sprawling works that encourage meditation by presenting something worth meditating upon. "Kingdom Come," the work that kicks off Marshall's latest disc, is a subtly shifting piece inspired by violent unrest in Bosnia; it rises and falls at a deliberate pace that underlines, rather than hammers away at, its eloquent themes. Likewise, "Hymnodic Delays," a medley of four short vocal pieces whose roots stretch as far back as 1698, allows its timeless airs plenty of room to breathe, and "Fog Tropes II," a reworking of a Marshall effort from 1982, evokes a coastal landscape via atmospheric touches -- foghorns included -- that slide in and out of the mix as gracefully as a passing whale.
For his part, Seim utilizes a large ensemble of brass and wind instruments whose voicings don't clash but cohere, resulting in a sort of casual elegance that admirers of Miles Davis's Kind of Blue period will recognize and appreciate. The stately "Sorrows," for instance, weaves together undulating musical statements with an almost classical formality, while "Intangible Waltz" tiptoes across the dance floor, with the musicians carefully considering each move before it's made. This method gives short shrift to improvisation and spontaneity, but the beauty, grace and gravity of "Different Rivers," "The Aftermath/African Sunrise" and most of Seim's other presentations more than compensate.
In the final analysis, these recordings can't be classified as new age. But the genre would be better if they could.
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