There is little information included about the music on Midnight Choir to prepare you for the listening experience (though there is a bio of Jimmy Bennington), and the disc starts right off quite abstractly. The first two tracks are attributed to Seth Paynter (sax) and are of a sparse, non-rhythmic, free kind that is more expressionist than anything else. "The Mind" is made of sax/bass duets, bass solos, drum solos, vocalisms, and the trio playing seemingly without regard to each other. Yet it hangs together, somehow anchored by an insistent low sax note. "Two Fascinations" has more rhythm behind a repeated trombone figure with sax "melody" opening with what follows being the improvisations with Melville sounding a lot like George Lewis and Paynter virtually ignoring the rhythm. Music this stark, wide open and loose is not very inviting at the start of a record.
However, the centerpiece (literally) of the record is a very dark, haunting version of John Coltrane's "Equinox." Paynter is now on tenor saxophone, joined by Melville and the rhythm section. The sound is again stark and wide open, but I did not want it to end. Bennington is a very subtle drummer, playing quite softly and behind the front men, coming forward only occasionally. Klingensmith also plays softly, more implying the pulse, and hence between him and Bennington a loose, elastic rhythmic feel is developed which drifts in and out of strong pulse. In front of this, Melville and Paynter can do what they want, always informed by the opening motive of the falling minor third, knowing that the rhythm section will follow, or at least not be shaken by them. Bennington takes a longish solo with some accompaniment by the bass that had me holding my breath. It was towards the end of this solo that I realized how intense everything had been up to this point. Now I was hooked.
"Ganges," by Paynter, is clearly derived from "Equinox," and shares it dark mood and intensity, gradually growing in volume and density, sounding a bit more like an Indian raga than a Coltrane tune. The static harmony is reinforced by Benjamin's piano, sounding like a sitar's droning strings at times. Once again, the intensity of the music was a surprising wave washing over me. This amazing music managed to pin me in my seat by subtlety rather than force.
The last tune, written by Michel Legrand, comes as a welcome respite, despite being played on a very poorly regulated piano. Its mood comes out of nowhere, and I found myself laughing because, after the initial relief of hearing a standard tune and a regular rhythmic feel, the same intensity kept growing and growing.
While seemingly a small record, Midnight Choir ultimately packs a wallop for the listener who stays with it.