ALBUM REVIEW: David Kechley’s A Sea of Stones

by Brendan Howe


David Kechley, indisputably the most technically challenging composer of music for guitar and saxophone, has released his latest three works for the unlikely combination – Points of Departure, Bounce, and the eponymous Sea of Stones. Granted, although Kechley was the first to specifically pair the guitar and saxophone together in 1992 with his album, In the Dragon’s Garden and has composed virtually all of the genre’s canon, Sea of Stones stands on its own as a magnificently complex, engaging, inventive work that also effortlessly achieves accessibility – no small feat in contemporary instrumental music.

It is important to note that Kechley’s compositions are heavily influenced by time spent in Kyoto, Japan, and that during his initial collaborations with saxophonist Frank Bongiorno and baroque guitarist Robert Nathanson for Dragon’s Garden they paid particular and meditative attention to the famed Zen garden at Ryoanji Temple – an experience that so inspired Bongiorno and Nathanson that they began calling themselves the Ryoanji Duo.

In both title and concept, Kechley derives Sea of Stones from the “controlled randomness” of the rock garden – fifteen boulders arranged in groups of two, three, and five, such that the maximum number of boulders visible from any angle is fourteen, the fifteenth revealed upon enlightenment. As Kechley asserts, his album is filled with motifs “that repeat, but don’t” – they maintain a familiar atmosphere while adding new perspectives for a sense of enriched understanding.

Points of Departure differs from other Kechley works for guitar and saxophone in that it consists of five discreet movements, as opposed to movements that flow directly into one another. Saxophonist Laurent Estoppey, who recorded Departure with Nathanson, opens the work in Prologue and Dramatic Exposition and closes the work in Epilogue and Lyric Recapitulation with two temple bells struck over Nathanson’s urgent, augmented, arpeggiated seventh and ninth chords, as the opening and closing of ceremonies.

Each movement of Points of Departure is titled to match its character. Kechley’s signature sharp contrasts are readily apparent in the tempo and dynamic shifts of Dramatic Exposition. Estoppey’s soprano sax at one moment frantically trills over Nathanson’s rapid attacks of nylon strings, and the next moment both release and slow to a pill-induced slumber.

The second movement, Quirky, makes heavy use of large and unusual staccato intervals intermixed with short, halting soprano sax phrases. It draws to mind images of ground squirrels doing what ground squirrels do – an impressively unique aesthetic that demonstrates Kechley’s versatility in writing for the two instruments.

Departure’s remaining movements – Chorale, Cadenza and Slow Dance, Relentless, and finally Epilogue and Lyric Recapitulation – each offer wonderfully varied shifts in tone and style, and create a brilliant narrative arc that returns to its starting point, but carrying a profoundly changed perspective.

The second of the three pieces included on Sea of Stones is Bounce: Inventions, Interludes, and Interjections, and was recorded by the Ryoanji Duo as a single 14-minute track. Kechley explains that the instruments build upon a single opening motif, inventing new forms as they go, with strategic interruptions that cause us to “stop and take a breath” at certain points throughout the piece. Lyric interludes also serve to build the structure of the piece. It becomes more continuous, intense, and organic as it evolves, before reaching the end of the cycle exactly where it began.

The latest of Kechley’s works, for which this album is named, brings in a unique orchestral element behind the Ryoanji Duo, here performed by the Polish Sudecka Filharmonia. The first movement, Awakening, opens with a steadily increasing, reverberant drumroll as a call to ceremony, similar to what would have been heard at Ryoanji Temple in the 15th-19th centuries. Diverse percussive instruments, evoking a theatricality akin to Kabuki, punctuate the melodic alto sax and guitar lines. This awakening is precise, crisp, and energized.

Kechley begins Dances and Reflections with the flute, then guitar, then horns, and finally oboe echoing the main sax motif, showing in brilliant resolution the stark perspective shifts that come from reflecting one event in different instrumental voices. The result is heartbreaking and mesmerizing. As the instruments join forces to flow into Arrival, they bring their divergent points of view into a single dramatic narrative.

So as to not give too much away, suffice it to say that the remaining four movements of Stones will not disappoint listeners who are eager to hear the rest of this beautifully crafted experience. Dialogs and Meditations initially breaks cleanly from the perpetual motion of instruments sharing with one another, the sax diving deeply into its own thoughts while the guitar drifts from whimsy to action. Return and Last Light come full circle with familiar motifs and percussion. Though the album concludes almost subconsciously, it leaves the listener with a sense of awakening.