In the liner notes to the new release from the Omer Avital Group, Room to Grow, co-producer Luke Kaven explains that the title is taken from an article Ben Ratliff wrote about Avital. That article specifically used the term in the context of Avital’s place in the record industry. The double meaning is unavoidable in the first tones of Avital’s bass. The live recording has the sound of physical space surrounding the instruments. The space is open and blank, the space accentuates the individual voices in quieter moments, the space is often filled to the point of critical mass. The record needs room, uses room and creates room.
From the warm plucking at the beginning of “Kentucky Girl”, an Avital original, each track is meticulously built. Initially a single voice, Avital, ventures some subtle ideas. Here he is answered by the alternately sweet and shrill tones of Myron Walden’s alto saxophone. These ventures meander and are tied to nothing but are far from noodling as is soon evidenced in the ground of the sextet. There is something like a head here but it plays more like a recurring theme sounding big and lazy, but never clumsy. Each return to form sounds more sluggish as the intensity of the solos builds. It acts as welcome relief and controlled counterpoint.
This first track introduces the versatility of the players. The bass, drums, and four saxophones (sometimes flute or clarinet thanks to Gregory Tardy) can sound immense or can reign in, tactfully trading solos. The saxophones can push and shove, muscling for room. Almost immediately out of the chaos they can provide tasteful harmonies in a relaxed approximation of big band sound.
Avital and drummer Joe Strasser are the definition of rhythm. Their individual voices are accomplished and deft but they dutifully fall in line to back the saxophones. This not to say that they are subsumed in the fullness of the sextet but rather that they avoid making showy grabs at attention. The show is in the structure which shifts and turns with anxious immediacy. The rhythm section is excellent backing but they are not content to merely provide a template for solos. Everywhere there are themes, there are possibilities and this potential room is expounded upon relentlessly.
This is eminently displayed on “Its Alright with Me”, the second track. Avital rumbles along searching runs and treads heavy with percussive impact before coming up against cascading layers of sax and clarinet. This is clarified by the wailing descent and subsequent resolution of Walden, leading the track out of the cold and into the warmth of a tune. The solidity of Avital is most obfuscated in this track, which sounds close to breaking apart a number of times but always manages to astonish in its taut developments. The cascading horns give way to a sweet hook, but then the bass is off on a tangent. A version of the hook returns, then Charles Owens breaks out in powerful solo, immeasurably enhanced by Strasser’s frenetic fills. Calling the shots is entertaining but the real effect of the album is in the immaculate regrouping that occurs between segments, all the more impressive as it was done live. The shared intuition is, at times, almost supernatural. An idea sure to jive with Avital’s own theories of “testimony” in “the long journey” as described by Kaven.
The last song, “26-2”, is the only time Avital does not introduce. Rather his brief soloing calls the listing band to attention. If his initial voice is that of order he quickly gets off track. And yet there is room for this too. Strasser follows along and the rest of the band patiently waits to chime back in and pursue their own solo ideas. This track is interesting as it is probably the most straightforward of the three. The band makes clear room for each voice to get a solo opportunity. It is upbeat, positive and conversational. The tempo remains mostly unaltered and everyone weighs in, ending with Strasser who has been most consistently motivating the method of address.
When the album title is applied stylistically it would seem pejorative, highlighting shortcomings. This may be, but it is all in perspective and these musicians seem comfortable with the idea of room for growth. It need not be taken at face value as an insult, but rather as a broad, even philosophical statement. Avital uses the term “long journey” musically but again this is clearly rife with meaning. The tracks here are extensive, by most standards epic, explorations but there always remains the sense that there is still a world of possibility. The songs are movements of themes and improvisation. They grow but they are maybe not full grown. While there are clear endings they are not so distinct from the dynamics of the rest of the piece, except in their subsequent silence. These songs can be seen as moments of growth, ideas worked out amongst a specific group of people at a given time.