A four-piece free-bop unit in the tradition of Ornette Coleman's famous / infamous quartet or (more recently) Luther Thomas' quintet efforts on CIMP Records, this is trombonist Mike Dessen, drummer Nathan Hubbard, sax player Jason Robinson and bassist Scott Walton. They wig out and in with similar facility, compose knotty head melodies and often (thanks to the odd mixing of the sax's and the trombone's sonorities) often recall the great small orchestras of the 1950s; see, for example, the dotted whole notes that open up STARING AT THE SUN's "Hell in Hat Yai," the noir spy-music theme (these fellows are from California, after all) , and how Robinson and Dessen slip back into the dotted droning to let Hubbard swarm over his kit with some ambidextrous bravura. Who says nobody can arrange any more? Walton is the resident minimalist with the best grasp of history on board, some of his rhythmic popping is simply as fast and as on-point as I've heard from anyone recently. Would like to hear him bow more, especially in the unison bits as on "Shrouded Over With Fog," where we hear him doing a gypsy post-horn thing under Robinson's and Dessen's long-form modulations. Hubbard's ability on the bass drum could fill in for the actual bass for 16 or 32 bars every now and again, no problem. But this group clearly knows what they're doing.
STARING was recorded in 2000 in La Jolla, California, before a very appreciative audience, and they could have counted me in as well.
SYNTAXIS reminds me of an old acquaintance's warning: "Avoid all groups which call their tunes things you suspect they made up." Not so here: I mean, if I took that seriously I would never buy a Xenakis CD. A studio effort recorded in 2002, we hear on this recording a more austere 20th-century European influence. And no, I'm not one of those who framed that New York Times article decades ago which likened Cecil Taylor to Arnold Schoenberg. Both geniuses, yes. Birds of a feather, not a chance. But I get a tremendous jolt from the almost Sixies-ish dream-sequence cymbal work Hubbard lays down for the opening "Restless Years," over which Robinson and Dessen give forth a gnarled switchbacked head worthy of Ligeti. Robinson's work on this CD has more of a Coltrane-like tendency to take chords apart under a microscope; sometimes the band do this ensemble in one of their more meditative moments ("Birdrock Dub", a trio for all but Hubbard, in which Robinson and Walton do the unison line throughout and Dessen climbs down from there occasionally to do the bass notes). Good programming here as well, since "A Secret No One Knows II" kicks into high gear right off directrly after. "Axis" seems to take a clip out of a solo and play it as a melody, another pretty wild ride considering it's midtempo.
The influences weaved into these two CDs may not be the most up-to-date but the playing and the melody are. Either is very much worth your lunch money.
by Kenneth Egbert
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