New School
Enja ENJ-9413 2

Mark Helias is a relaxed sort of guy. At least that's what you figure when you see him play, and on evidence of the tunes on this fine CD here.

That doesn't mean that the bassist isn't an intense improviser on stage, or a consummate advanced composer. It's just after 25 years in the jazz trenches, working alongside the likes of Ed Blackwell, Dewey Redman, Ray Anderson and Gerry Hemingway, he doesn't have to keep himself front-and-centre all the time.

He's confident enough in his ability that while Open Loose is definitely his band — he wrote all the tunes and has his name is on top — there's more than enough space on this CD to show off the skills of drummer Tom Rainey and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby.

Let's deal with Rainey first. A superlative player who has received a NEA grant to compose and perform percussion music, he also powers other trios such as Fred Hersch's and Tim Berne's Paraphrase. Potentially the most abstruse drummer around, he never gets involved with power games or noise saturation.

When he does get solo space, he certainly doesn't wear out his welcome with extended ramblings. On "Gentle Ben", for instance, which Helias earlier recorded in a trio with Italian saxophonist Daniele D'Agaro, when the tempo doubles, Rainey displays one of his favorite devices, beating out the rhythm with his palms on snare and toms, then using mallets rather than sticks to extend the sound. "Pick and Roll", on the other hand, highlights his often-bifurcated beat. Never resorting to bebop cymbal accents or rock's lead-footed bass drumming, he's restrained enough to suggest the beat through muted snare and foot cymbal work. Like an accomplished bicycle rider he can even impress by performing no hands, propelling movement with foot pedals on cymbal and bass drum. He's so self-effacing, though, that there are even times you have to remind yourself that he's actually on the date.

Malaby, who has also recorded at the head of his own quartet, burrows into most of the music with the dogged determinism of a fighting dog. One of his preferences is to tease and menace the melody as if he's a German shepherd confronting an unwelcome alley cat. Figuring out different ways to approach "Dominos", for instance, he collapses it into linked patterns from different angles. Usually a high register specialist, he spends much of his time meandering along with a pitch that could be confused for an alto's. On "Mapa", for instance, the longest track, he gets involved in a protracted, high-pitched scream, which is interrupted every so often for a breath consolidating low blow from his horn. Then on "Question Time (Knitting or Quitting, Pt. 5)" his constant up-and-down tenor slurs are finally succeeded by one long foghorn-like exposition that is echoed by an unrestrained bass rumble from Helias.

With large, expressive fingers, the bassist is comfortable in most registers. He can match high, violin-like arco parts with Malaby on some tunes, while at other times, like "Startle", his throbbing pizzicato work holds the rhythm steady, giving the other two enough space to roam.

Focus here is on Helias the composer as well as soloist. For the pieces on NEW SCHOOL are written, not spur of the moment improvisations hurriedly thrown together for a recording date. Each has a definite theme and distinct conclusion, with protracted solos kept to a minimum to prevent the proverbial solo tail from waging the compositional dog. One of the bassist's favorite compositional devices is voicing the bowed lower tones of his instrument in unison with the tenor saxophone's bottom range. But that doesn't result is excessive gloominess. In fact, if there's an adjective that could easily be applied to Helias' tunes it's "lope", since most move along at an easy pace.

All and all, the session recorded live at a New York concert last year shows how much can be accomplished with only three standard instruments. Still, one wishes there were more money available to composers like Helias. Three instruments are just that, after all, and with funds available to expand his compositional palate beyond three or four pieces some of the monochromes here could be viewed, or more properly heard, in Technicolor.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Molecule 2. Startle 3. Dominoes 4. Mapa 5. Gentle Ben 6. Pick and Roll 7. Question Time (Knitting or Quitting, Pt. 5)

Personnel: Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone); Mark Helias (bass); Tom Rainey (drums)