A free-improvising piano trio, in the studio, conjuring melody.
It has been an exceptional year for pianist Craig Taborn. His most recent solo album, Avenging Angel, came out on ECM -- the fabled label of seminal solo piano work by Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea -- giving him the widest pure exposure of this career. Playing solo acoustic piano for Manfred Eicher’s sonically pristine microphones gave Taborn the chance to explore matters of dynamics, texture and pure pianism.
But at his core, Taborn has always shone brightest as a collaborator -- with James Carter, with Chris Potter and Tim Berne, and with scores of other notables in both avant-garde and more conventional circles. Out of This World’s Distortions is the second disc by the collective trio Farmers by Nature: Taborn, New York bassist William Parker, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Cleaver and Taborn met in college, and Parker is the kind of master collaborator who both fits in and leads no matter where he is playing. The group’s first outing was recorded live at The Stone in Manhattan.
Out of This World’s Distortions finds the trio in a studio in Brooklyn crafting somewhat shorter -- and somewhat less atonal -- landscapes from thin air. It is a very very good free jazz record. That is, it has no “compositions”, no pre-written and therefore deliberately beautiful or even just carefully organized tunes, to lean on. But despite this, Distortions makes a strong case that totally improvised jazz can be joyous and enjoyable.
There is extreme playfulness in the bloodline of this trio. “Sir Snacktray Speaks” puts together a jabbing little jig from Taborn’s piano with an aching set of held bowed tones on Parker’s bass to generate a smiling theme. Then Cleaver takes over for a cluttered drum lead that scampers over a Parker pizzicato line. Then Taborn reenters, with a moody set of locked-hand chords, which sets up Parker to return to his bow for some down-home fiddle figures.
If it’s a lovely ballad you hanker for, then the opener, “For Fred Anderson” (a reference to the recently passed Chicago free tenor player), is a haunting, lovely theme. Taborn rings his keys with the sustain pedal down, getting a series of beautiful overtone resonances -- a bed of stunning sound over which Parker plays very quiet bowed tones. The texture of this performance is spare and transparent, but Cleaver thickens it with subtle cymbal and percussion work.
“Tait’s Traced Traits” might be a slightly more typical “free” performance -- busy and clattering and with a shifting tonal center. But the bouncing feeling that Taborn establishes on piano hints at an affection for stride playing, and then the more genuine improvising kicks in, with the rhythm section compelling and, yes, swinging in its own way. “Cutting’s Gait” also moves quickly, but this one really lets Parker establish the busy sense of movement. It’s a relatively quiet tune, eventually turning into a squiggling stand-off between Parker’s arco 32nd notes and Taborn playing snake-like runs that flow like cirrus clouds.
Cleaver gets his feature on “Mud, Mapped”, where his circular pattern on tom-toms seems like tribal tip-toeing. Taborn plays pastel arpeggios or chords, and then Parker reaches into a high register with his bow. Eventually the whole band gets into a trance-like spin of sound -- pleasing and even Glass-ian, except that the tonal variations of each musician fend off monotony easily.
The title track of Out of This World’s Distortions may be its highlight. Parker begins with a stately plucked melodic over pulsing cymbals. Taborn eventually enters with a set of sculpted rising patterns that are not the theme as much as a framing accompaniment. Over time, this balanced conversation draws you in, seeming to ask a million questions without providing obvious answers. You might listen to it 10 times, concentrating on different elements each time.
Each of these performances makes the case that “free jazz” is not a forbidding mess but rather an open plain of possibilities. Farmers by Nature is a band that takes seriously its mission to communicate to listeners, even though there is not a compromise in sight. The music is not appealing because it is familiar but because it sounds grounded, rooted, in basic patterns and in a connection to emotion.
Craig Taborn, William Parker and Gerald Cleaver move as one on this record. And if you give the music half a chance, you move with them.