Quinn Sternberg, Cicada Songs (Mind Beach Records)



Shortly after his second effort, Spirit Beach, jazz bassist Quinn Sternberg was composing material for his upcoming release when inspiration struck. He noticed the insects chirping in a 7/4 time signature on a tropical night, counted as a pair of double-beat triplet phrases, followed by a triple-beat phrase. Fusing together the sounds of nature and a combo mimicking that in a symbiotic way, this breakthrough led to writing the title track and feeling like the project was coming to fruition. Granted, “Cicada Songs” was tweaked slightly to switch between 5/4 and 7/4 to not be so robotic. It begins with saxophonist Sam Taylor’s swinging attack over a basic triplet pattern between Peter Varnado’s rap beats.

Sternberg compares “Alter Ego”, another rhythmically complex composition, to “code switching” (one speaker alternating in multiple languages). Through various movements, time signatures, and keys, the journey leads back to a C-flat major chord, essentially saying the same thing differently to different people.

Several compositions are interpretations of Sternberg’s own experiences, with “Insomnia” being a prime example. It begins with a beautiful, atmospheric melody depicting a restless state, followed by a disruptive, conflict-torn passage characterizing the struggle to sleep. It then begins with alternating notes symbolizing a ringing alarm clock. The waking movement builds with activity, which means that the failed sleeper has resigned himself to facing the day.

“Remember the Birds” is based on a serene moment when a flock rises to take flight into the sky. Usually, Taylor is the prominent voice with everyone responding to her lead, but on “Remember the Birds,” pianist Oscar Rossignoli plays an important role. On the intro, he plays the strings of an acoustic piano to sound like a string harp and takes a fickle solo later as the birds prepare to take off.

It’s an album of firsts for Sternberg, with more rhythmically complex compositions, and the first time he’s recorded with an electric bass, with his usual acoustic bass, to match the mood of the track in hand. As a bass player, he is stealthy, with the occasional noticeable presence.

Sternberg relies on a few trademarks as a songwriter, such as playing the unison melody on “June,” where there is no featured soloist. Elsewhere there are always soloists alternating and improvising, each contributing to the melody.

Surprise, abrupt endings are another trademark, like “What a Day” and “Porch Cat.” The last note is not played because the pattern has been repeated several times. By then the listener should know the melody well enough to anticipate it. Deep stuff indeed, but what else would you expect when inspiration comes from the rhythms of insects?

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