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Julian Gerstin, 'Littoral Zone'

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Julian Gerstin, Littoral Zone - COURTESY
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  • Julian Gerstin, Littoral Zone

(Self-released, CD, digital)

Creating and executing a concept album is always a tightrope act. Doing so as a solo artist is effectively like working without a net. So it's doubly impressive and delightful any time some brave soul pulls off a concept album in style. Such is the case with Littoral Zone, an oddball gem from Brattleboro-area percussion expert and educator Julian Gerstin.

Gerstin is one of Vermont's many hidden talents, keeping a modest profile despite his world-class chops and constant gigs. He's a session pro and a music educator at the Vermont Jazz Center, as well as a human encyclopedia of global music styles and history. He is also the coauthor, with Ken Dalluge, of the excellent textbook The Musician's Guide to Rhythm, which presents a wide-ranging mix of theoretical and practical ideas.

All of which is to say that Gerstin is well qualified for the demanding task of carrying a concept album mostly solo. The album in question, Littoral Zone, is focused on another of his obsessions: marine life.

If you're unfamiliar, a "littoral zone" is the transitional space closest to the shore of a large body of water. These zones contain vibrant, psychedelic ecosystems teeming with life. Gerstin's album, which he hails as "percussion for mollusks," is focused on ocean tide pools, some of the most diverse littoral zones on Earth. Each track is a tribute to a different species, using their names, shapes and habits as launching pads for syncopated portraits. So while the project is rooted in jazzy polyrhythms, it's also off in its own galaxy, a purely interpretive journey.

The album's sly sequencing evokes the cycles of the coastal tides, with high-energy tracks such as "Dentalium elephantium" or "Hexaplex radix" framed by calming interludes. There are also truly remarkable textural experiments, such as "Spirula spirula," which resembles some of Aphex Twin's ambient work.

Befitting the oceanic vibe, the album includes some lovely, lazy fantasias. The soothing "Grimpotheusis," one of my favorite tracks, features marimba work from Steve Rice. His deft chops show up on two other songs, "Purpura" and "Argonauta argo." "Corculum cardissa" presents another guest spotlight, this time a sinuous clarinet solo from Brattleboro educator Anna Patton.

Gerstin's range is immense, and he draws on all of his experiences and techniques to keep things interesting and evolving. He also breaks out a tremendous tool kit for the job, incorporating dozens of different instruments, both traditional and improvised. His compositions are layered but loose, and his approach makes for an immersive listening experience.

Despite being both an aquatic concept LP and rendered almost entirely in hand percussion, Littoral Zone is a deeply enjoyable journey. Each of these tracks is a carefully crafted soundscape. That's a testament to Gerstin's chops, certainly, but what really carries this project is his playful, endlessly inventive imagination.

Littoral Zone is available at juliangerstin.bandcamp.com.