Playscape PSR#J061803

A Bright Nowhere
Matchless MRCD 55

Turning on its head the old NRA slogan of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and actually that way making a modicum of sense out of its twisted message, these bands show that instruments don’t make the music, people do.

For both these quintets consist of improvisers playing the exact same instruments and ones which make up the prototypical hard bop quintet. Yet the advanced music played by Mario Pavone’s quintet — and trio — is anything but typical boppish fare. Meantime the Conditions twist the sounds arising from trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums into original fare that owes more to extended free improvisation than freebop.

As further points of congruence, each of these bands features a veteran as a defining figure — shades of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers — and several younger players. Conditions, a collective in all areas, including compositions, has on board percussionist Eddie Prévost, one third of the anti-individualist BritImprov mainstay AMM. Although he may dispute it, this CD like many of Prévost’s non-AMM projects is closely allied to jazz, the sounds which first attracted the drummer to improvisation. Around the same age as Prévost, bassist Mario Pavone has been firmly in the jazz tradition for three decades, working with musicians such as multi-reedist Anthony Braxton and the late Thomas Chapin. Building on the advances of the 1970s and 1980s, what he passes on to younger musicians should be defined as modern mainstream, if you ignore the neo-con retreading of the 1990s.

Pavone is enough of an individualist to record a CD made up of all his own compositions, although he offers arrangement credits and plenty of solo space to his colleagues. Collectively a bit older — and better known — than the Conditions, they include trumpeter Steve Bernstein, whose own Sex Mob band mixes good times and musical sophistication; tenor man Tony Malaby, a member of bassist Mark Helias’ trio; pianist Peter Madsen, who has recorded his own solo sets; and drummer Gerald Cleaver, who has backed up nearly every New York downtowner. The entire quintet plays on five selections; the rhythm section alone on four.

Thoroughly committed to the BritImprov ideal that negates such concepts as rhythm section and front line, all the Conditions are seemingly present on the CD’s six selections. However the creations are sometimes so low-key that musicians may be unheard for long periods. Best known of the band is bassist John Edwards, who has seconded sax innovators such John Butcher over the past few years. The other three players are part of a group concentrated around Prévost's weekly improvisation workshop and also play in a nonet that grew from that. Trumpeter Jamie Coleman and pianist Alex James are also members of the London-based improv-electronica Cinematic Orchestra, while tenor saxophonist Nathaniel Catchpole, a British graduate of Berklee College, has worked with other BritImprov veterans like trombonist Paul Rutherford and bassist Simon H. Fell.

Separating one instant composition from another on A BRIGHT NOWHERE is often as difficult as ascribing distinct tones to individual instruments, especially where the horn players are concerned. Both rely on slurs and trills, with Coleman sometimes exhibiting a brittle, muted line in a Booker Little-like fashion, lip-sucking drones or Jungle band plunger tones. Elsewhere, he comes up with something that could be a quivering, hunting horn tone mixed with a child’s cry. For his part, Catchpole squeezes out solid breathes of colored air at certain points, whistle through his reed as if his sax was made of plastic, tongue slap or violently strain foghorn timbres or force split tones from his horn’s bodytube.

Lower key — no pun intended — than any of the rest, James often seems to be AWOL on certain tracks. Since he isn’t comping or spinning piano fills however, the typical keyboard commenting of a jazz pianist isn’t needed. Notwithstanding that, when he does play, his contributions seem to centre on isolated right-handed pecking, or low-frequency pressure point fantasias from either hand. Habitually these appear to be further stopped by mutes applied to the piano’s innards. Similarly, when unidentified resonating pitches move back and forth, you wonder if they result from stoppers inserted between soundboard strings or from percussion.

Although straight ratamacues, flams, ruffs and rolls can be utilized by Prévost on a tune like “Digging” — 1950s hard bop reference anyone? — his more common response to reed screeches and bent brass notes is rumbling percussion feints and slashing cymbal lines. Sometimes he’ll rely on the rattle of unselected cymbals, tom toms or a bell tree plus the temperate strokes of brushes on his drumhead. At points his sound resembles that of a small dog skittering over a newly waxed floor.

Edwards moves from intimations of walking bass lines to full-fledged, so-called insect music scuffs and scrapes, though there are times with sound pieces going every which way that whole sections seem to lack a tonal centre. There’s also a point on “Unutterable” where the piece moves along as if it’s a solid mass of oscillating sine waves: The band creates electronic sounds with acoustic instruments.

Putting the title’s inference aside, the CD reaches a climax of sorts on “Cuckoo cloud” where whole trumpet notes, buzzing sax obbligatos and regular drumbeats suggest a dissonant Swing era melody. Coleman exhibits some stratospheric trills that turn to moans, Catchpole tries out non-1930s-like multiphonics, James offers a singular, low frequency piano fill and the bassist and drummer press on imperturbably.

Embracing the very jazz conditions which Conditions try to avoid, Pavone’s men always swing — whatever that means — but come out best when round-robin soling and the conventional head-solo-solo-head format is put to one side. Most impressive are two of the quintet tracks, “Burnt Sweet Orange” and “Goorootoo”.

With everyone snapping out different tones, perhaps the title of the later is meant to suggest the collective sound the band makes. Madsen produces some high frequency clip clops, while Bernstein buzzes out grace note with abandon and holds one tone for an extended period, finally releasing it as a slurred descending blur. This seems to encourage Malaby to turn from mid-range lines to guttural tones, freer, extended echoing honks and renal screams. Following a few bars of rumble from the bass drum and cymbals, out-of-tempo unison horns take the piece out.

The trumpeter is even more expressive on “Burnt Sweet Orange”, producing muted plunger tones like a modern day Bubber Miley. Pavone accompanies with some guitar-like, single-stopping and Cleaver not only displays rim shots but what Baby Dodds called “nerve beats” or rattling the sticks in one hand. As Madsen adds some tinkling, right-handed piano pressure, the trumpeter’s note placement become practically pre-War. Taken together the music causes you to flash on a Black and Tan show band, pleasing the customers, while pleasuring itself by playing its own music.

Pavone’s quintet is like that as well, with first call honors divided between the pianist and the trumpeter. “Sky Tango” — the longest track at nearly 11½ minutes — may give Bernstein an edge as the arranger, since the composition features a spiraling, multi-part melody, based around muted Ellingtonia-like horn riffing behind an adagio thematic exposition. Madsen asserts himself later on with his fingers barely touch the keys, as they slide out high-frequency cadenza and glissandos. Building in intensity and using both hands, you can tell that this proto-freebopper is no restrained Bill Evans type. Before the theme is reprised for a third and final time, Malaby has exposed some glottal honks and out-of-tempo high and low-pitched trills.

Unsurprisingly Pavone and Madsen assert themselves more on the trio pieces — and definitely more than James and Edwards do on the other CD. The bassman gets to tug on his strings with abandon to pinpoint the rhythm, while the pianist has the freedom to pile up chord sequences or limn semi-classical impressionistic fantasias on top of bass and drum beats. Tight and communicative, the pianist, bassist and drummer make most of the tunes by passing lines by-and-forth among themselves. Still without the horns, the end product moves down to B+ instead of A.

Not that this should keep you away from this CD, or the other. Each in its own way proves how far you can range with standard jazz instrumentation.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Bright: 1. Never, Never 2. Digging 3. Sky pie 4. Cuckoo cloud 5. Unutterable 6. A bright nowhere

Personnel: Bright: Jamie Coleman (trumpet); Nathaniel Catchpole (tenor saxophone); Alex James (piano); John Edwards (bass); Eddie Prévost, drums

Track Listing: Orange: 1. Blue Rex* 2. Triple Diamond 3. Sky Tango* 4. Drop Op* 5. Rebass 6. Burnt Sweet Orange* 7. Goorootoo* 8. Box In Orange 9. Language

Personnel: Orange: Steve Bernstein (trumpet)*; Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone)*; Peter Madsen (piano); Mario Pavone (bass); Gerald Cleaver (drums)