Ben Kono Group, Don’t Blink. 2019. Ben Kono, composer and saxophone and woodwinds; Pete McCann, guitar; Henry Hey, piano and Fender Rhodes, Kermit Driscoll, acoustic and electric bass guitars; Satoshi Takeishi, drums and percussion. Self-released. Compact Disc, Digital Download. 15 Tracks, 56 minutes. https://benkono.bandcamp.com/album/dont-blink. $12.
“How do you portray in music what it feels as a child discovering you will never enjoy the spectacle of passenger pigeons in flight? Or the anxiety of knowing your own daughter may miss your experience of hiking a glacier if global warming continues at its current rate? What in music can convey the awesome wonder of standing in silence among the redwood giants, or the unexpected excitement of meeting a monk seal during a morning swim?”
These are the questions saxophonist/composer Ben Kono seeks to grapple with on Don’t Blink, Kono’s second offering as band leader. The recording is the culmination of a commission from Chamber Music America to compose a suite for quintet. The work was premiered in New York City at Cornelia Street Cafe in 2014, and this new CD was released in May of 2019.
One would be hard pressed to find a more relevant unifying program for a contemporary suite, regardless of genre. And while the topic of mankind’s relationship with the environment is indeed fraught with anxiety and uncertainty, the resulting musical tapestry, however, is anything but.
The album opens with the flourishing rush of “Dawn,” the first of a handful of connecting vignettes, most about a minute in length, that weave in and out of the main body of multi-styled longer form compositions. These musically unifying miniatures return in the forms of “Spirit Animals” such as the Marmot, Beluga, Condor, and Leviathan. The short interludes, along with the eclectic variety of what might be called “world music” styles and grooves are reminiscent of some of the more memorable work of Ralph Towner’s ensemble Oregon and their creative use of short form improvisations and miniatures. Likewise, the expansive ambience of this excellent recording is reminiscent of the best sonic aspects of the ECM label of the 1970’s and ‘80’s.
When the short form ventures give way to the more expansive and patiently crafted soundscapes, Kono moves effortlessly among an entire palette of woodwind instruments, crafting elegant melodies and clear, economical improvisations. And although this recording showcases a wide variety of styles, from that of “Smoky Madtom Hoedown”—part Béla Fleck and part Steps Ahead—to the more straight ahead tenor-infused modal swinger “Tipping Point,” to the hard driving and panoramic “River of Fire,” all of the selections fall neatly into the overall voice and vibe of the album.
The instrumental performances on Don’t Blink are uniformly excellent within a warm blend of effortlessly rendered grooves, and adventurous though understated harmonic explorations. The solo passages are concise and perfectly proportioned to serve the overall ends of the compositions. The result is a beautifully crafted and earnestly presented work of art.
Don't Blink was recorded by the Ben Kono Group in February of 2015, engineered by Paul Wickliffe of Skyline Pro Studios. Mixing by Brian Montgomery and mastering by Mark Wilder at Battery/Sony Studios in New York City. It was made possible in part by a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Commissioning and Ensemble Development Grant, generously funded by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.