Jim Black

Malamute
Intakt CD 283

By Ken Waxman

Like approaching a large tied up canine you’re not certain is friendly or ferocious, Malamute can lead to the same ambivalence. Most of the players in this brand new group – keyboardist Elias Stemeseder, electric bassist Chris Tordini and especially drummer Jim Black – have been involved with some of downtown NYC’s most exploratory musical situations, while Icelandic tenor saxophonist Óskar Guðjónsson is more of a songster, with a Nordic style that’s midway between melody and melancholy. Plus not one of the CD’s 13 tracks is longer than six minutes, with most in the three minute range.

Although cross breeding can produce as attractive a dog as a labradoodle and artists from Duke Ellington to The Ramones have dealt memorably with miniature forms, this particular tune-litter appears to suffer from the lack of energy you would expect from an older pooch rather than a puppy. Since nearly all the tune titles are dog-related it’s tempting to treat Malamute as the result of obedience training gone wrong. While the disc livens up at mid point, additional coaching seems necessary to turn the quartet into a furry helpmate and a person’s best-friend.

Admittedly designed for contemporary short attention spans, the first tracks meander among sampler echoes, downbeat drumming and slurred sax tones until “Into the Pool”. Sudden keyboard splashes, plus ratamacues and staccato tongue stretches propelled with the enthusiasm of a dog shaking himself, suggest Malamute has awakened from canine shut-eye. Later tracks such as “Just Turned Two” and “Full Dish” are even better. The first attains a rock-like groove via Black’s backbeat, Morse-code-like pumps from Stemeseder and wide vibrations from Guðjónsson. Meanwhile “Full Dish” must have put vitamins in the kibble since the cool contrast of the saxophonist’s straight-line theme-elaboration with the drummer’s jagged pumps sets up a contrapuntal challenge that imbues this track with more emotion than expressed elsewhere.

Overall it’s this lack of passion which makes Malamute a poor candidate for adoption. Puppy-like hyperactivity is avoided here, but it’s replaced by the feeling that too many of the tracks are as inert as lapdogs. Perhaps next time out, the old dogs represented here will learn new (and livelier) tricks. The pedigree is certainly obvious.

Tracks: .1. Almost Awake 2. Toys Everywhere 3. Dusk Scout 4. Chase Rabbit 5. Into the Pool 6. Stray 7. Just Turned Two 8. Sought After 9. Cool Doze 10. Eat Everything 11. Full Dish 12. Pugged 13. No Leash

Personnel: Óskar Guðjónsson (tenor saxophone); Elias Stemeseder (keyboards); Chris Tordini (electric bass) and Jim Black (drums and sampler)

—For The New York City Jazz Record May 2017