[11 May 2008]
The term “free jazz” was invented fifty years ago to get audiences to fill late night bars and thusly sell beer. No, actually, though it may have inadvertently had that effect at the beginning, at least until people caught on. The genre’s name, as such, can be misleading, depending on which word you emphasize. Sure, it’s usually atonal, irregular, and very spontaneous. But it’s also jazz, which draws from a rich well of tradition about a hundred years old.
The jazz tradition is the best part of Steve Lantner’s music, regardless of whatever other words you choose to slap on it. The pianist believes in and practices swing, bop, blues, and lyrical melodies. He regularly visits the border-crossing music of Lennie Tristano and Cecil Taylor. He’s got plenty of other quirks as well. Those touches cast the otherwise exploratory and occasionally explosive qualities of What You Can Throw in a familiar light, as if inviting the listener into Lantner’s imaginary loft to sit in a comfortable chair and hear three guys throw it down. (As for what they’re throwing down, that’s up to you to decide, or at least that’s what the title seems to suggest.)
This New England trio, which is very tight and empathetic, has some history, both on record and otherwise, dating back to 2003. Each player deserves attention, and as an organism they are more than the sum of their parts.
Joe Morris got his start and some deserved notoriety as a guitarist, then took up the bass, which he plays here. What’s most striking is the way he adapts to different situations and moods, especially as the music progresses and evolves. He swings in a romantic way, even during otherwise frenzied episodes. That nostalgic vibe contrasts with his fairly aggressive approach—Morris, as a personality, is much more a pusher than a puller.
In contrast, Luther Gray is usually more restrained, or maybe just more subtle in his approach. Some drummers insist on aiming for the roof, but Gray deliberately moves along, adding detail, camouflaging the beat (as such) with understated, sometimes busy accents. That’s not to say he’s noodling or dabbling in indulgence. Quite the opposite, actually. He’s a team player, one of three on the stage; his colors, details, and occasional punch glue a lot of seams together. Hear his minimalist bop on the opening track, for example, and contrast it with the surging edge of the second.
Four of the five pieces on What You Can Throw are over ten minutes, and you’ll get more out of them if you stay the course. Likewise, if you listen to this disc instead of playing it in the background, you may find yourself whirled into its energy and sweetness. Lantner’s piano clearly frames the changes as they evolve, circling around odd harmonies, adding melancholy or exuberance in abundance as the situation may require. He leaves a lot of loose ends as well, usually in transit, winding naturally off the path (as such). But he never clouds the picture with these parenthetical remarks, and neither do his partners with theirs.
What You Can Throw is engaging and inviting, as much intellectual as physical. The chemistry is right, the leader is bright, and the group sounds as good as ever.