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See latest reviews of other albums..., August 2000

This is a gem. Lan Xang is a highly creative improvisational group from New York (although all members were originally West Coasters) that produces music that fascinates, and challenges. I have listened to this CD about 10 times, and it gets better every time. The quartet is:

Kenny Wollesen - drums, percussion
Scott Colley - bass, percussion
Donny McCaslin - tenor and soprano sax
David Binney - alto sax, clarinet

The group name Lan Xang, which comes from 14th Century East Asian history, was an ancient empire that originated from what is now Laos and ruled much of the Indochina region for over 300 years. "The Land of A Million Elephants" was what the region was called. The name in Laos carries associations of cultural kinship among people that bridged local isolation and divisions. Since the concept behind the quartet is to incorporate anything into the music regardless of genre, the Lan Xang moniker relates quite appropriately. It was bassist Colley who first came up with the name.

"We were looking for a band name that would not necessarily be associated with Jazz music," saxophonist Donny McCaslin explains on behalf of the group. "We wanted something that wouldn't confine us stylistically and that would be interesting and different." What the group has achieved is not so much music that isn't jazz, but music that represents what jazz should be. Music that is a new creation altogether; innovative, rhythmically charged, and poignant.

Lan Xang is more proof that jazz just keeps getting better. Wollesen and Colley form a bass/drum duo that is among the best I've ever heard. And McCaslin and Binney play harmonies and counterpoint lines that sound rich and full. Add to that some well-chosen sound samples that just seem to fade in from outer space, plus a willingness to blend in atmospheric Eastern sounds and you have a record that is both unique, and a pleasure to listen to and study. Although this group does more than it's fair share of experimenting, which will disqualify it for some listeners out there, it is music that always paints a unique picture of sound, and is never boring.

Glenn Astarita
All About Jazz

Their 1997 debut on saxophonist David Binney's "Mythology Label" marked a high point for jazz, as "Lan Xang" pursued modern jazz with crushing penetration and an edge rarely witnessed in small acoustic ensembles. On Hidden Gardens the musicians continue their conviction, while augmenting the group sound and overall sonic appearance with ethnocentric horns, percussion and Binney's conceptualized utilization of samplers.

The potent two-sax attack commences on "The Restless Many". Here and throughout, the saxophonist's are a mini-orchestra as they pursue engaging themes and ideas that may indeed take the listener to no man's land, aided by intriguingly ethereal samples and otherworldly motifs. The band belts out hot, punchy "Brecker Brother-ish" horn charts on "Trinity Place" while McCaslin's flute performance on "Xang Six" counterbalances the faintly suggested inferences of Asian modalities. On "Mode Four", Scott Colley's booming yet authoritative bass performance anchors the steamy, hard driving dual sax lines as Binney and McCaslin jab and spar atop a simply devastating rhythm section. This is "Heavy Metal" jazz sans the metallic element which equates to loads of impact and excitement as minimalist choruses segue into rampant free-jazz dialogue on "Xang Eight". Binney is a literal speed merchant during the slightly abstract yet high-octane-funk piece titled, "Gradual Impulse" as he and McCaslin shout lofty unison choruses atop pounding rhythms.

The underlying mood or premise may suggest that Hidden Gardens is an untainted or unspoiled dwelling that cultivates one's imaginative powers. Here, "Lan Xang" act as your virtual tour guides for this most appealing and quite extraordinary voyage. * * * * 1/2

Micah Holmquist

"...And the music is good. Lan Xang use bits and pieces of indigenous music from around the word to color a blend of new music and early Ornette Coleman type material

The new music part shows up first as the opener, "The Restless Many," has a neo-classical motif that works well. Before long though, the music has progressed to where it features the odd honks that made up early post bop. As the disc progresses, the music alternates between these two styles with ease and comfort. None of the performances stand out as particularly strong but the group shows good chemistry and certainly appears to have the potential -this is only their second release- to do much more. Rating: Three Stars"


Interview with Donny McCaslin of Lan Xang by Brian L. Knight of the Vermont Review. On Berkelee, vibraphones and playing jazz at 12 years old…

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