Those who dismiss instrumental music driven by piano and flute as easy-listening tripe will do well to give Outside the Maze, the new release from Gilliam/Martynec/McBirnie, a chance. The trio expands the possibilities of instrumental music within this context in ways that will surprise and delight even the most cynical listener. The off-kilter cinematic qualities abundant in the first track “Outside the Maze” sets the table for the nine songs that follow and even the improvisational structuring of the song proves to be no impediment to the song getting under the listeners’ skin. It’s evocative and accessible without ever playing down its iconoclastic mood. Even a seven minute plus running time fails to undermine the title song’s overall impact.
“Warping Asteroids” is one of Bill McBirnie’s peak moments on the release. He unleashes flurry after flurry from his flute and the lyrical quality of his phrasing provides us with one of the album’s most accessible moments. Pianist Bill Gilliam and electroacoustic player Eugene Martynec are not to be outdone, however, as they complement his work with outstanding accompaniment. It’s an impressive mix of the familiar and improbable that works from beginning to end.
“Orbital Resonances” is one of Outside the Maze’s undisputed high water marks. They risk affectation with a piece such as this, particularly with its extended running time, but end up portraying something close to the endless expanse of space. They achieve a near orchestrated quality, as well, when you hear how the performance ebbs and flows because of, not in spite of, its improvised setting. Gilliam’s piano drops numerous near jazzy lines into “Chasing the Limits” but, as the title implies, he breaks off into uncharted territory many times during the song. The mix of these seemingly warring elements finds a perfect accord and McBirnie’s flute matches him each step of the way.
“Cicada Musings” will be a favorite for many. The quasi-ambient leanings of its opening sets the table for what soon follows. The musicians portray the musical chatter of the insect as a choir of sound, unpredictable yet inevitable, and Martynec dazzles with contributions later in the performance. It’s one of the peak moments on Outside the Maze. “El Gato & the Mouse” is another peak performance. The inclusion of percussive sounds near the song’s opening gives it a distinct character different from other songs on the release and the element of musical surprise further illuminates its possibilities. Martynec shows why he is a near orchestra unto himself with his apparently endless capacity for calling upon an array of sounds to flesh out the performance. It scampers and bursts its way into the listener’s consciousness.
The last track “Time of Walking Slowly” has a pensive aspect that’s ideally suited to its title. There are hints of darker undercurrents running through the song, even a smattering of lyricism, but it closes Outside the Maze on a memorable note. These are musicians taking chances rather than wallowing in the status quo and the final result produces one of the most offbeat yet enduring instrumental releases in recent memory.