Soundbites in music are nothing to be frightened of. Once one is beyond the novelty, you’ll see that the selection of what soundbite a musical artist uses to introduce their work can be telling. Consider “New Myth”, a 70-odd-second prelude of noodling that greets the listener at the start of New Myth/Old Science, the debut album from the all-star jazz band Living By Lanterns. The idea behind this new band, spear-headed by Chicago drummer Mike Reed, is to take unused scraps from the late, great Sun Ra and configure them into the sounds of today’s leading improvisers.
Track one appears to be a brief appropriation of a lecture from the old master and contains the following line: “Faith can be a grid between what is called reality and what is thought to be myth.” (If this is not from a Sun Ra lecture, then I prepare to stand corrected). Right away, we are warned not to take anything on faith — taking things on faith steers one from reality. Go around the bend just a little bit and you get to “myth”, a kind word that people will pin to uncertainties when they are feeling charitable. To say that myth and reality are mutually exclusive is a stretch, which is what makes the following soundbite, appearing after a series of mutters, sound so off-putting: “If you’re not a myth, whose reality are you? And if you’re not a reality, whose myth are you?”
Before you confuse yourself any further, let’s pull back and look at the lineup of Living By Lanterns. In addition to Mike Reed, there’s Greg Ward, Taylor Ho Bynum, Ingrid Laubrock, Tomeka Reid, Mary Halvorson, Jason Adasiewicz, Joshua Abrams, Tomas Fujiwara and special guest Nick Butcher. That’s ten names in all. And if you follow modern jazz to any degree then you are probably familiar with at least two of them. They represent the cream of the improvisational jazz crop from New York and Chicago and lengthy Wikipedia entries can be made for each one’s discography. You would also need one hell of an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of how often each of these musicians have played with one another. The main point to take away from this is that these are big names. They are all out there, in the trenches, keeping their musical personalities in heavy rotation with limited means. But the qualitative law of supergroups (something I just made up) suggests that the sum of the parts can’t be carried by faith alone. And if faith is a grid, then prepare yourself for gridlock. This is music where the keel is even and where the table has no centerpiece. Even when a challenging force such as the Arkestra is used as a template, New Myth/Old Science doesn’t have a mood or dynamic to call its own. It just is.
And talent be damned. In the recent past I’ve given a good review to Adasiewicz, a very good one for Ward, and enjoyed Mike Reed’s Clean on the Corner. But when vague talk of airy myth gets batted around too much, it turns into a liability, threatening to seep into one’s sound. And where a guy like Sun Ra probably harnessed and eventually overcame this, it’s the default setting for Living By Lanterns. No wispers to anyone, no nuclear war, no trips to space.