An avant-garde jazz supergroup sets up a peaceful trap, waiting for an unsuspecting listener to flip the switch.
There are few bands like Little Women, and an album like Lung is rarer still. A supergroup combining four relatively young and unmistakably ambitious jazz musicians, Little Women are not terribly prolific, making just one EP and two full lengths since 2007. But when they do manage to break away from their usual routines and regroup, they certainly make the moment count. Trusting intuition more than anything else, they let the music go where it will, even if it becomes violent. Their previous album certainly struck a chord within modern jazz circles. Upon leaving a talk held by Dave Douglas in 2011, I heard a jazz student from OSU heap praise on 2010's Throat, saying it was the best thing he'd heard the previous year. 2010 was a year crammed with great jazz, especially the modern stuff, so I figured there must be something to these guys.
In 2007, Little Women started at the Teeth. By 2010, they moved down the Throat. 2013 finds them deep in the Lung, and the title is appropriate. While Little Women's first two albums arrived at their edge via visceral skronks delivered in spikey attacks, Lung staggers itself so strategically that the music wasn't even divvied into separate tracks. Yep, Lung is presented as one bell-shaped track lasting 42:13. Saxophonists Travis Laplante and Darius Jones, guitarist Andrew Smiley, and drummer Jazon Nazary want you to consume the suite all in one sitting. If that sounds intimidating to you, know that it's actually not. "Lung" takes its sweet time developing and blooming, making it easier for the listener to take the journey with the band. It's not a mindless jam and it's not a meticulously composed piece of serious music -- at least I don't think it is. Little Women likely gave themselves some loose parameters and took the time to let the music breathe on its own. And hey, that's probably why they called it "Lung".
When you open the digipak, the only liner notes you will find are a set of instructions corresponding to our planet's four seasons. Just as we experience seasons as a cycle, our respiratory systems keep a perpetual cycle going. We breathe air, we consume air, and things end as they begin. "Lung" does the same thing; it ends the way it began, with quiet but forceful breath. The four members stagger their inhales and exhales together. Even when Nazary makes his entrance with the cymbals, the level of quiet achieved here is a rare thing to experience compared to a majority of today's recorded music. Laplante and Jones slowly dance around one another as Smiley sprinkles a simple two-string figure on top. They do this for quite a while, slowly building steam so that they may...sing? Close to the six minute mark, one or two of the members hold a tone with a soft 'a' vowel as the saxophones and guitar wrap up their gentle phrase. Now all four members are vocalizing the same note, staggering with one another to keep it going. A noisy sax tears through the sheet, reminding everyone else to bang away on their instruments. After some rudimentary announcements from the Smiley and Nazary, especially of the don't-you-forget-my-guitar-is-electric-and-I-know-how-to-use-it persuasion, "Lung" falls deathly silent once again. At this point I'm thinking Wow, these guys really have eggs if they think they can get away with that much quiet. Not only does it fly in the face of the ongoing compression you hear in the loudness wars, but it defies what Little Women did before.
As the piece inches nearer and nearer to the halfway point, it grows more bipolar. The quiet saxophone passages grow more dissonant as Smiley and Nazary continually threaten to come in and bulldoze everything. Deep in the center of "Lung", everything finally goes crazy. Smiley and Nazary barely follow each other while Laplante and Jones fly off in their own directions with trill-happy free solos. From here to the end, "Lung" walks a line between chaos and form that grows increasingly fragile as it rolls along. The surprises grow more frequent, asking the listener to constantly readjust what they think is going to happen next. It takes nearly three minutes for Little Women to allow the dust to settle, and as one may expect, it is done so uncompromisingly. The saxophones' shronks have been reduced to mousey little yelps as "Lung" finally peters out.
This is a moody reminder of what modern jazz can, but often does not attempt to, do. In the throes of climbing to the highest peaks of noise and fury, bold musicians both young and old sometimes forget to explore the caves and meadows below. It's in these alternate places where things can become eerily still, so soft that it scares you. At the risk of sounding like a wimp, Lung can make for frightening listening. But that's no excuse to miss out on it. Like I said, there is no band quite like Little Women and Lung is an even scarcer achievement. It would be a pity to miss this alignment. Besides, from Teeth to Throat to Lung, where do they go next? I bristle to think.