"The Subliminal and the Sublime is based on the concept that, under the surface of our apparent reality, there are subliminal layers of patterns, detail and depth. When we look at these layers more closely, we have the opportunity to discover sublime truths about our world and ourselves."
This is the stated concept of Chris Dingman's new record, The Subliminal and the Sublime. I'm not entirely convinced that the album is successful in conveying that without the explicit written context, but maybe it doesn't need to. Music doesn't exist in a vacuum. When presented with further explanation of a piece from a composer, the listener can choose to view that as a shortcoming of the music itself or simply as an avenue for a deeper appreciation of the piece. The latter is often the more enjoyable option. All that being said, this album does feel very natural.
Dingman is an accomplished vibraphonist-composer, having recorded with Anthony Braxton (whom he studied with at Wesleyan University) and extensively as a member of Steve Lehman's ensembles (including on his most recent and highly praised octet record, Mise en Abîme).
Despite his extensive discography, this is only Dingman's second outing as a leader, and it is incredibly ambitious. The album consists of five tracks, each corresponding to a single movement of a massive, continuous 62-minute suite, performed by an incredible band. There is hardly a better rhythm section to be found in modern jazz than Fabian Almazan on piano, Justin Brown on drums, and Linda Oh on double bass. While Dingman's vibraphone is certainly the driving element, tirelessly moving the piece forward, his textural and melodic compatriots — Loren Stillman and Ryan Ferreira, on alto saxophone and guitar respectively — easily keep pace with the bandleader. Stillman's and Ferreira's individual contributions are thoughtful and well-executed, serving only the work rather than any hint of ego.
Unfortunately, this type of record is often under-appreciated by jazz audiences, and The Subliminal and the Sublime is fighting an uphill battle from the get-go. The first obstacle the record faces is its high-art concept. The massive piece borders on being programmatic, as Dingman wrote each movement with distinct narrative structures in mind. That alone is rather unfamiliar in the jazz world. There are obvious exceptions, most notably Steve Coleman's recent work, but this type of pseudo - "program music" is almost exclusively found in the classical world. Similarly, the massive scale of the piece — especially considering the movements serve simply to parse the work externally, and should be listened to as an unbroken whole — presents an issue to the attention span to many jazz listeners. Don't get me wrong, we're all used to listening to Trane burn for 15 minutes and digging it from start to finish, but we are primarily accustomed to viewing a record in terms of songs, not a 62-minute evening-length work.
Now, let's get to the music.
On this record, harmony is king. That's not to say there isn't focus on melody — there is — but it comes in the form of fragments and themes that pop in and out as structural guideposts, rather than serving as the framework of the piece. Dingman's use of harmony, however, conjures a soundscape that bends and breaks like the natural phenomena he sought to represent. This is particularly apparent on the opening movement, aptly named "Tectonic Plates", which uses the resonant timbre of the vibraphone, coupled with electronics and a healthy dose of reverb, to create slowly shifting sheets of harmony.
Working in tandem with the harmonic landscape is Dingman's clear focus on texture. The textures used are clear and concise, often involving repeating figures that slowly mutate and interact with the rest of the ensemble. The end result is something akin to minimalism under a microscope, surrounded by improvisation. While listening to the fourth movement, "The Pinnacles", I couldn't help but feel like the asymmetrical, floating vibraphone chords (at around the 12-minute mark) sounded like a slowed-down Steve Reich vibraphone line.The chords, as well as the other textural gestures and themes, act as a force of musical gravity — the axis about which the rest of the ensemble rotates and refracts.
The sprawling 62-minute work is compelling from beginning to end. It is contemplative and in many ways meditative, and as such it is best listened to with a similarly contemplative approach. Despite the high-art concept, it is very much an accessible piece of music. With one foot firmly planted in tradition and the other in the ever-growing No Man's Land between the trenches of jazz and contemporary classical music, Dingman has successfully realized a highly ambitious and forward-thinking work.
The Subliminal and the Sublime will be released on June 16. The album can be pre-ordered in a variety of formats on Dingman's website, chrisdingman.com. The first two tracks are also available for preview on Bandcamp.
Miller Wrenn is a bassist and composer based in Los Angeles, CA.