March 3, 2021
Playscape Recordings PSR #081119
NotTwo MW 1004-2
The Shape of Things
Pine Eagle Records 013
Brevity is more than the soul of wit. It applies to musical thought as well. At least that’s why of these three outstanding reeds-and-rhythm section dates, Jason Robinson is more problematic than the other two. While Conference Call and the Rich Halley quartet limit themselves to seven and six tracks respectively, Robinson’s group express themselves on 13 (!) for a CD length of more than 78 minutes. It wouldn’t be fair to describe Harmonic Constituent as bloated, but some judicious slimming would have turned good to very good.
The 10th Conference Call CD, Prism lives up to its name by highlighting its members heightened capabilities. The core is German tenor saxophonist/bass clarinetist Gebhard Ullmann, plus Americans, pianist Michael Jefry Stevens and bassist Joe Fonda who also divide the writing among them. Swiss timekeeper Dieter Ulrich is the band’s most recent drummer, replacing earlier ones whose experiences were far different than the different drummers of the Spinal Tap band. Bouncing drum tops and thwacking cymbals, Ulrich brief breaks confirm his skill and team player emphasis.
Meanwhile the tracks are designed to highlight each member’s multiple skills. Compare Ullman’s atmospheric “Variations on A Master Plan (Part 2)” for instance with Stevens’ bluesy “Sal’s Song”. Evolving in double counterpoint on the first, bass clarinet slurps and patterning keyboard motifs move in concentric circles. A near honky-tonk romp, “Sal’s Song” matches late-night keyboard raps with enough flutter-tongued downward vibrations that a contemporary version of Junior Mance and Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis are brought to mind before the piece climaxes with appropriately gospel-like affirmations from Stevens.
Although keyboard strides, double bass strokes and reconstituted bass clarinet or tenor saxophone warps and woofs are in great abundance it’s Fonda’s earnest “Listen to Dr. Cornell West” that shows that quartet at its most vigorous. With a hypnotic string vamp that undulates as it solidifies the bottom, counterpoint with closely harmonized tenor saxophone bites and thick keyboard comping defines the exposition. Turning mellow to mighty, Fonda’s tremolo pummeling moves the narrative to a climatic sequence emphasized by reed arabesques and whorls from Ullmann and slapping rim shots from Ulrich until piano chords confirm the ending.
Along the lines of those Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section LPs of the 1950s, The Shape of Things is another instance of intermingling elevated ideas. A West Coast saxophonist – Portland’s Halley meets an established New York trio – pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker. Here the program is bookended by two extended performances that show how this fusion pushes the result past mere timbres meld to textural multiplication. Starting the title track with repeated raucous honks from the saxophonist the exposition is stretched further by shattering hand pumping from the pianist, thematic raps from the bassist and clipping rumbles from the drummer. As the tune surges to prestissimo Haley’s top of range glossolaia and Shipp’s expansive key chiming splay hard accents. The head is finally reprised but with jerky toughness. On the concluding “The Curved Horizon” low-pitched piano kinetics add to the Energy Music implications as the saxophonist’s split tone ejaculations continue almost unceasingly. Add Bisio’s slithery bass-string extensions and a quick powerful drum break with cymbal and rims shots, then Halley’s speaking-in-tongues mutiphonics slur downwards to join the others in conclusive accommodation.
Throughout the disc the four chart a nimble course between established and eccentric narratives, with Shipp expressing himself with soundboard echoes and backboard thumps as well as restrained and calculated chording and Halley keeping a kernel of mainstream refinement within the collection of reed tones displayed when calibrating the narrative and often repeating the pattern with harder and thicker echoes. There’s even a point on “Spaces Between” where the slippery reed bites and swirling piano pulses reach balladic underpinnings at the same time as strident elaborations.
Working with a well-balanced rhythm section of pianist Joshua White, bassist Drew Gress and percussionist Ches Smith while playing tenor and soprano saxophones and alto flute, Robison also moves in-and-out of literal and leading-edge improvisations. Designed to musically reflect the rugged Northern California coastline, some of the tracks are mere miniatures or inflated mood snippets, where melodic repetition seems to take the place of narrative development. Those tracks where this is overcome are usually those where other players’ impulses assert themselves alongside mellow saxophone or flute passages. One instance of this is “Melange Geometry”. Set up by glockenspiel taps and piano swirls, the story telling is also enhanced by moving among alto flute vibrations and measured saxophone buzzes. Additional narrative excitement is provided when White is allowed to stretch out. These keyboard focuses are best expressed on extended tunes such as the first and title track and “Isobathic Sounding”. Taken straight-ahead “Harmonic Constituent” reach a crescendo of dramatic keyboard expression with elevated, pumping dynamics, as Robinson’s muscular tenor saxophone tone extensions cunningly divide so that the saxophonist appeared to be playing duets with himself, contrasting harsh squeaks and moderated slurs. Robinson loosens up on the mid-CD “Isobathic Sounding” after emphasized irregular reed slides and shudder attain a pseudo climax following double stroked keyboard punches. The narrative then keeps moving impressively as tangents of triple tongued reed variations, drum clip clops and staccato rebounds from inside the piano connect at the conclusion.
Three eminent contributions to Jazz saxophone quartet literature, the veteran players’ discs are most accomplished, However with his burgeoning experience; the academically focused Robison will likely relax to put out a better session next time out.
Track Listing: Prism: 1. F.J.D. 2. Prism 3. Listen to Dr. Cornell West 4. Variations on A Master Plan (Part 2) 5. Sal’s Song 6. The Bee 7. Zeit Lupe
Personnel: Prism: Gebhard Ullmann (tenor saxophone and bass clarinet); Michael Jefry Stevens (piano); Joe Fonda (bass) and Dieter Ulrich (drums)
Track Listing: Shape: 1. Tetrahedron 2. Vector 3. Spaces Between 4. Oblique Angles 5. Lower Strata 6. The Curved Horizon
Personnel: Shape: Rich Halley (tenor saxophones); Matthew Shipp (piano); Michael Bisio (bass) and Newman Taylor Baker (drums)
Track Listing: Harmonic: 1. Harmonic Constituent 2, Phase 1 3. Jug Handle 4. Shear 1 5.Seventh Wave 6. Melange Geometry 7. Isobathic Sounding 8. Phase 2 9. The Interval 10. Apogean Tide 11. Shear 2 12. Mountain In Your Mind 13. Jug Handle (alt)
Personnel: Harmonic: Jason Robinson (tenor and soprano saxophones, alto flute); Joshua White (piano); Drew Gress (bass) and Ches Smith (drums and glockenspiel)