I believe I know the bridge on the front cover that new voice on the tenor sax Chris Madsen is photographed beside; it might be one on the Taconic Parkway, which heads into upstate New York, and traverses one of the major reservoirs. Nah, I don't know the name of the reservoir, I just drink the water. Typical New Yorker! At any rate, the confluence of the saxophonist and the bridge (we recall a seminal Sonny Rollins album of decades back named THE BRIDGE, beause as legend had it, he used to practice on the walkway...) points up Mr. Madsen and fellow travelers
(Mark Lau, bass; Jeremy Noller, drums; Adam Birnbaum, piano) ' attitude toward The Tradition. Yeah, you know. That one, and all its real and imagined pitfalls. FREE TO DRIVE is all about restating and carefully extending with nuance. This quartet are literate and accomplished, and their ability to upshift and downshift are as smooth as my late dad's Jag Mark IX he used to own when I was a kid, while Madsen's seven tunes here tweak the sentimental in us all as much as our taste for overdrive when necessary. Often, both at once! The question for you will be, will that do? I've made my own tastes relatively clear in past reviews in Jazz Now, and I won't bore you with them here; suffice it to say I haven't really been that big a fan of the melodic in decades, largely because there's only so much that straight and rigorously tonic melody can do for my head. That said, Madsen's quartet are capable of pretty much most of it, if not all. "County E," a neutral-gear reflective piece highly evocative of 'Trane (Madsen's tone itself has a Shorter-esque sweetness) in his first one or two Quartet releases on Impulse!, has him exploring those upstate back roads on a mid-autumn afternoon. The melody is far simpler than Madsen will let on, and Birnbaum does overindulge in the additional curlicue notes as well. But throughout there is between the two voices (Noller's easy cymbal riding underlining this) a sense of command of the piece's boundaries and interior structure. Clearly the fellows know what they're about: with a Birnbaum chime at that point or a Noller flourish at this, Madsen's own leaps and trills skip back and leave the playing field open for one of the other instruments. It takes a lot of rehearsal and a lot of sweat to make it seem this busily effortless.
In contrast, Lau's upright is more in Ron Carter territory, marking out tonal boundaries only and little more; still, when I hear him step out (a snappy 24 bars on "I'll Fake Romance") a sharp swinging wit surfaces. The title tune gives us the foursome working off a simple midtempo vamp, Madsen not so much rising to take the bait and run with it as twirling about the extant piano chords Birnbaum lays down. The sense of a fast pace remains during a static but affecting piano break even though the pace itself doesn't, and Noller's wild snare and tom rolls after Birnbaum wraps up heralds a seesaw melody from Madsen. Again, you might think the band will kick into 4th gear now or never...but more of a sense of 'going 75 on the straightaway while keeping an eye on the rearview mirror' remains. A triumph of dynamics! Madsen's solos stay technically 'in' though he is not averse to visiting that dreaded upper register, even if only to remind us it's there. Trading eights on "Metal Man" in the classic fashion, Birnbaum, Noller and Madsen revisit Central Park West (if not the Coltrane tune specifically) with a densely populated feel. Yeah, it's all those grace notes piling up, like pedestrians at a crosswalk. Fun to listen to them traverse it together.
Accomplished, yes, but Madsen and compatriots do still run up against that scary question of long standing that still keeps some of us critics up nights. Thankfully not all, but here goes: Do we really need the tradition restated again? Expertly done as it is? Well, I think Monk, Ayler, Coleman, Trane, Dolphy, and so forth all started moving away from the 8-tone scale because it no longer allowed them to do what they wanted. And what did they want? Generally speaking, a vocabulary which would give listeners something new, prevent them from hearing scraps of old standards in every new tune. So where does that leave this quartet?
First answer: fan of the Second Viennese School that I am, I don't want to make the same mistake some of Schoenberg's pupils did: today's new move cannot erase the old ones (though some artists will try...) Its purpose must be at least similar to its effect: at least partially, place previous traditions in a different light. Secondly, 'the tradition' is not meant to be forgotten or lightly brushed aside, because then it's not the tradition any more, is it? It's like we start building the bridge halfway across the reservoir, and not at either end. Nice way to get soggy. There was a reason why Eric Dolphy kept "God Bless the Child" in his set list for so long. And finally, the tradition is expanded as well as upheld on FREE TO DRIVE because Madsen's quartet has a sense of very fluid pulse and tempo that I can't recall the like of in more than half a dozen bands over the years since I listened to the Dave Brubeck Quartet's TAKE FIVE at just about that age. "Hidden" begins as a gentle ballad with some extensive ranges of implied meter, and though myriad fireworks shortly ensue, the 'ballad' feel never entirely goes out the window. Again, prettty damn impressive. "Molasses" rounds out the collection, an uptempo bopper of the sort Cannonball Adderley used to make of Randy Weston's "Hi Fly." Again, no dinky potatoes, nohow.
Guess it's clear by this juncture that I hate how guys who have gone on to Stockhausen and Xenakis put down the music which, had they not heard it early on, they would be going senile in their 40s listening to classic rock radio (kindly gag me)... so if the spirit moves you, put this in your car's CD player and take a trip to Binghamton on Route 17 some early morning. The mileposts will fly by. And in the end that is what it's about.
by Kenneth Egbert
Jazz Now Interactive November 2004 Vol 14 No. 7 - Table of Contents
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