Bill McBirnie has carved out a richly deserved reputation as one of the finest flutists of his generation. It hasn’t stopped him, however, from continuing to explore the limits of his creativity and, in collaboration with electroacoustic player Eugene Martynec and piano player Bill Gilliam, his recent output ranks among the finest in his career.
Their new foray, a ten song collection entitled Outside the Maze, highlights their improvisational skills in memorable fashion. They create spontaneous compositions relying on little else beyond their innate interplay to make the performances work and few will dispute the results. It seizes upon the moment without flirting with pretentiousness and the instrumental nature of these performances never cries out for a singer. These are songs, full-bodied musical compositions, and even the most cynical listener will be entranced by their power.
Atmosphere is a key component of the release. “Outside the Maze”, the title song and album’s longest performance, is arguably one of its edgiest experiments. Musical motifs announce themselves and disappear as suddenly as they arrive, but the performance holds on to unflagging internal logic. This helps listeners glide through the performance’s seven minutes and change duration without feeling weary. There’s plenty to latch onto during this song.
“Orbital Resonances” has the vastness of space and the musical contributions sound like signs of life from within the void. Martynec’s contributions mean a lot to this song, he’s endlessly inventive here and elsewhere during the album, and gives Gilliam and McBirnie a lot of creativity to play off. It’s the album’s second longest performance and it’s a statement of purpose that the trio decided to front load the album with these two extended performances. “Chasing the Limits”, however, is much shorter. It’s notable that the three musicians lose nothing off their musical fastball with the shorter running times; it has the effect of focusing their explorations rather than cutting them short. This performance embodies that.
“El Gato & The Mouse” is one of the album’s livelier performances. It would be nice to have more insight why some of the song titles were chosen, a glimpse into the inner workings of the trio’s shared creativity, but “El Gato & The Mouse” is easy to interpret. There’s a coy, pawing quality about this song and you can practically hear the happiness these musicians share working together. “Splicing the Dawn” opens that way as well before segueing into more considered territory. It certainly has the feel of watching the sunrise, an unexpected grandeur that will bring peace to whomever chooses to listen. McBirnie’s flute plays a pivotal role in invoking that mood.
It definitely isn’t your customary instrumental release. McBirnie, Gilliam and Martynec go places other musicians don’t dare to and the resulting bounty for listeners is deeper than you may imagine. Pulling it off without ever sounding heavy-handed means this release deserves even more notice than it already has. McBirnie, Gilliam, and Martynec will get it. Outside the Maze is music for new frontiers, jazzy sometimes, and always intensely visual.