This is exciting music, crazy music, playful-stunning-fun-outthereallovertheplace music. You can call it avant-garde jazz if you like, what with all the noisiness and all the instrumental improvisation, but it seems wiser to just let this music be free and beyond category. That it surely is.
There’s no leader on this date, with each member of the trio writing tunes and playing an equal role in the sound and conception. Perhaps the “lead” voice could seem to be Peter Evans, the trumpeter best known for being part of Mostly Other People Do the Killing. Evans is true exemplar of today’s “out” musician in that he has killer technical facility (as a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory), classical chops, a beautiful sound, a mad imagination, and a humorous sense of “play” in his music. Then there is guitarist Mary Halvorson, who has been the most interesting and unique electric guitarist in jazz for some time, boasting a highly unconventional technique that works with a structured sense of composition. Finally, the percussionist here is “Weasel Walter”, a denizen of the Chicago out-music scene who has a long list of interesting collaborators.
The sum of these parts is something magical and chaotic, playful and directed. It’s “jazz”, I suppose, because there is so much improvisation and because the basic rhythmic approach here has the pliant sense of flow that, in another era, would have been called “swing”. But it’s some cool/weird music, baby, nothing that rubs up against tradition. This is music like little else out there beyond the work of Halvorson, Walter, and Evans.
So what does it sound like, and why do I like it so much?
Most of the material here is tightly composed music that has the precision of bebop or fusion—specific patterns, rhythmic figures, and intricate sets of parts—that nevertheless uses the noisy or edgy palette of sounds that these players enjoy. So, “Vektor” by Walter opens with a “head arrangement” based on a series of unison hits that follows the pattern: 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2 etc though with varying rhythmic values in each sequence and with changing melodic content. Evans’s “Klockwork” begins with over two minutes of skittering, playful free improvisation, but it then shifts to an exacting arrangement set up as a call and response between Evans and Halvorson in unison and Walter playing a wood block in a tick-tocking manner that gives the tune its name. Halvorson’s tunes are equally precise. “Organ Grinder” begins as a textural experiment between Walter’s kit and Halvorson’s volume knob, with Evans riding in like a clarion caller on top, but it becomes not only a series a arresting duets but eventually a specific rat-a-tat melody. And her “The Last Monkey on Earth” is a ballad of sorts, with a haunting guitar arpeggio setting up a melody built from beautiful long tones from Evans.
It is notable that these relatively atonal songs still balance composition and improvisation, restriction and freedom, as surely as 1960s date by Andrew Hill or a classic Charlie Mingus recording. The “inside” elements are largely compositional and they are built from sonic textures that are less likely to sound like swing or bop, but the basic concept is the same. Walter’s “Interface” comes in at over 11 minutes and is the longest track here (most measure about five minutes in length), but it is the most “structured” composition in the set. As you listen to it, you can see the players reading a score to follow the intricate stops and starts, the various sections, the moments in which patterns shift, overlay, then come suddenly together. If a classical composer had a taste for skonk and no-wave textures . . . if Frank Zappa were still around and loved free jazz a bit more . . . maybe if I were just more familiar with Weasel Walter (who this record will force you to investigate) . . . this is what you get.
And it is weirdly beautiful.
Two of the compositions here are spontaneous, free improvisations credited to the trio collectively (“Baring Teeth” and “Bulging Eyes”), and they do stand out for not being “written”. But Walter, Halvorson, and Evans are such good musicians, such superb listeners, that even these tracks have a sense of structure and care. They are the exception to the rule here, but they demonstrate all the more that this ensemble functions from a place of structure and harmony despite its grounding in “avant-garde” territory.
Are Walter, Halvorson, and Evans out ahead of the curve? You bet they are, but what they’re doing out on the edges isn’t chaos but marvelous, liberated music.