The Stone, John Zorn’s club in New York City, must have no ventilation system. Altitude is the second album I’ve come across recently where both the liner notes and the press release talk about just how hot and sweaty the performers became during their sets. In this instance, guitarist Joe Morris, bassist William Parker and drummer Gerald Cleaver performed two sets at the Stone on the night of June 17, 2011. Their cool-down time in the basement between these performances appears to have slightly altered the course of their evening. When you get down to it, Altitude is still free jazz from start to finish. This is music that comes out of a moment, stuff that’s created specifically for the time and place in which it happens – live music in almost every sense of the word. Naturally, the listener at home doesn’t get the same sense of sweat and noise that the audience probably experienced, though it’s not for lack of trying on the part of Morris, Parker and Cleaver. In fact, it sounds like they were playing their asses off that night and were in a highly communicative zone with one another. But as an album, as a recorded product Altitude feels more muted than it ought to be.
The trio’s first set occupies only two tracks, “Exosphere” and “Thermosphere”, totaling over 50 minutes. Morris and Parker share a preference for long form, the presentation of multiple themes intertwined with improvisation. Morris himself has a poetic way of describing it in his liner notes: “The long form lets you tell a story; it lets you follow the nodal path in your thought process; it lets you play in layers; it lets you dive into the wave of energy and stay there. And it offers a sense of ritual that describes the present.” The second set spans over two numbers as well but is much shorter than the first. Parker sets down his upright and picks up the zintir, a Moroccan bass lute. He also starts scatting along with his basslines, so we are not really in Ornette Coleman territory anymore by this point. “Mesosphere” even finds Parker carving out a danceable three-note tribal vamp not at all indicative of the first set. “Troposphere” exercises the kind of vamp that allows Cleaver to show off, pulling polyrhythmic tricks out of his backside without letting the pulse drop for even a second.
Joe Morris appears to have a laid-back slant on this second set. The first set makes it sound like he’s in danger of overheating. He’s got dexterity and stays on top of the beat as every good, no, great guitarist should. But there are moments in “Exosphere” and “Thermosphere” where Morris’ rapid note fire sounds like it could unravel at any moment. In addition to this, he’s taking the hard route with his tone. Applying no effects to his sound, Joe Morris is making himself very vulnerable, and sometimes it sounds like he’s just barely hanging in there. Maybe it was the respite from the heat or Parker getting out a different instrument, but Morris seems happy to back off on “Troposphere” and “Mesosphere”, letting his single-note lines glide around rather than lead the way.
Given what Joe Morris, William Parker and Gerald Cleaver have accomplished before, Altitude doesn’t feel intricately experimental. It sounds like three guys picking up the free jazz thread and pulling at it for one night, simply for the joy of it. Coming through your home speakers or personal earbuds, it comes across as mere sound. The thrill isn’t gone, it just got lost in translation somehow. It’s a reminder that a great show can sometimes only give you a good CD.