By: Travis Rogers, Jr. The Jazz Owl
With Gene Ess’ album Absurdist Theater, I said that “Gene Ess is a philosopher.” He is indeed that but he is an anthropological philosopher. In Eternal Monomyth, he took Joseph Campbell and C. G. Jung and explored the quest of the hero.
In Absurdist Theater, he delved into thoughts akin to Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer and even Camus. He looked for meaning and for hope and finding neither, he found beauty. Now, Apotheosis completes a trilogy of thought and art that finishes the hero’s quest.
Apotheosis is not used in a theological sense by Gene. He does mean “becoming god-like” in the simplest and worst-used version of the phrase. He doesn’t even mean it in the musical understanding of a grand theme used in connection with a person. He means it in Joseph Campbell’s terminology where completion has been achieved. Buddhism might call it enlightenment and Christianity might call it revelation but even those great terms are not quite right.
A hint comes from Gene’s quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche including in the CD jacket. “The only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not—that one endures.” Ah, there it is. This album is the completion—the ultimate completion—of the hero’s quest. It is standing over the vanquished foe, even when that foe is ourselves.
Well aware of the danger of over-extending the metaphor, our hero Gene has a group of fellow-travelers in the band who have been with him for much, if not all, of the quest. That is an important part of the journey, the companions.
Thana Alexa has been with Gene for four albums now, starting with Fractal Attraction. Thana may know and understand Gene’s music and vision better than anyone. And she makes it sing. That’s not a bad pun, that is a reality. Her voice intones the anguish, the hope, the danger, the joy of the journey. She is amazing.
Sebastien Ammann is back, absent from Gene’s line-up since appearing on Fractal Attraction. He is the right pianist for interpreting the music and drive of Apotheosis.
Yasushi Nakamura is on acoustic and electric bass, a returning comrade from Eternal Monomyth. Gene calls him “one of the best bass players I have ever heard.” He is that and he is also an excellent conduit for Gene’s probing work.
Clarence Penn is on drums you hard hard-pressed to find a drummer with Clarence’s interpretive feel. Gene calls him “one of the best jazz drummers in the international jazz scene.” Thana and Clarence are the two artists who have accompanied Gene for the breadth and length of the trilogy. And both have shown their own sense of development in the environment of Gene’s compositions.
The album opens right where it should, with The Return. The hero must make his/her return to the place where it all began. Whether it is the great religious figures or Gilgamesh or Odysseus, the journey can only come to completion on the return home. And certainly, there are faint catches of familiar motifs from the earlier albums. Clarence’s deliberate drumming, Yasushi’s expansive bass lines, and Sebastien’s chording lay out a homelike base for Gene and Thana to explore.
Sands of Time (Okinawa) takes Gene to his homeland and the island of his childhood. Thana provides a welcoming intonation for the returning hero. Sebastien turns in warm and inviting piano work while Clarence creates cymbal washes that remind of sandy water swirling around the beach-combing man of dreams. Yasushi is as steady as the waves. And Gene explores well-traveled avenues and coves, mountain tops and deep vales.
Same Sky is the ode to oneness and solidarity among the family of humanity. Gene provides an exquisite acoustic guitar for Thana’s rhapsodic hymn to human compassion and understanding. Some have called it a lament. I disagree. Thana sings
Mine is the same sky
We look to
You and I
How did our eyes
Learn to see differently
To feel the need to
Separate you and me
We hear the names
We see the hate
Feel (the) pain
In times, we’re not treated the same
There is beauty in our differences
In learning from our brothers
Only then will we truly know
I choose to live a life
If we accept our b rothers
Only then will we truly grow
That growth is part of the apotheosis, that coming to understanding. And Gene musically achieves the imagery he seeks to convey his message. What begins as just Gene and Thana grows to include piano, bass, and drums. Beautiful.
Bluesbird is swinging blues that casts reflections of introspection acquired through the journey. While blues, it is not blue. It is a reminder that recalling where we have been has led us to where we are now. And where we are is the springboard to the future. And you’ve got to love the lock-step scat-guitar duet.
Tokyo Red is another return—this time to Gene’s birthplace. Instead of a remembrance of what was Tokyo in Gene’s infancy, it is an exploration of what Tokyo is now—vibrant and exciting. Just like the music. Gene gives some of his best soloing and Sebastien plays over the rumbling bass of Yasushi and intricate drumming of Clarence. Funky stuff.
Perhaps the most haunting piece—and this may truly be a lament—is Fireflies of Hiroshima. The piece is replete with Japanese modalism and Thana’s vocalizations add a chant quality to the piece. It is not just a lament for Hiroshima or even Japan. Hiroshima is a rip in the fabric of humanity.
The piece takes on an ironic sadness, too. Firefly watching is enjoyed all over the world and certainly in Japan. One eyewitness of the horrors of Hiroshima described the sparks and hot ash raised over the bombed city as “deathly fireflies.” Where children may once have sung watching the fireflies, Thana chants something close to a wail of grief. The song reminds us that the hero’s journey is full of tragedy and grief is inescapable.
Day for Night is the overcoming of that grief. It reminds one of Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may endure for the night but joy comes with the morning.” There is indeed a time for grief but there is most assuredly a time to set it aside and forge ahead. Yasushi gets in some get solo work here—melodic and excusive. Keep your ears tuned to Clarence Penn. He does all things a good drummer does but he also does the little things that make him great. The tune fades out with a sweet piano overturned nocturne. Brilliant.
The album ends with Two Worlds. It reminds me of Gilgamesh. In the epic’s prologue, it reads: “He was wise, he saw mysteries and knew secret things, he brought us a tale of the days before the flood. He went on a long journey, was weary, worn-out with labor, returning he rested, he engraved on a stone the whole story.” The last paragraph of the final chapter—called The Return—repeats the very same lines. T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my end is my beginning.”
This is the hero’s journey, the quest which is circular and takes us back home and back to ourselves. Learning to live in the two worlds of spirit and matter, two times of past and present, and yet be a whole person, that is the hero’s journey.
~Travis Rogers, Jr. is The Jazz Owl