Most of the standard jazz histories skip the really interesting time when noisy experimental rock — punk, hardcore, skronk, No Wave, whatever labels you like for the smart-as-a-whip art-rock that was emerging in the late ’70s — crept over toward jazz. Jazz in its free-wheeling avant grade forms was already a plain influence on that music, so it’s no surprise that the two scenes would engage in a bit of flirtation. While it isn’t well-documented, a band like Last Exit (electric bassist Bill Laswell, guitarist Sonny Shamrock, Peter Broztman on saxophone, and drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson) may be all the evidence you need, with strains of Ornate Coleman’s “free funk” mixing with metal and noise and pure power. Today, you can look at the career of a major “jazz” player like guitarist Marc Ribot and trace the way that his style may owe less to Wes Montgomery than to a time when jazz and rock felt like kindred spirits, each in search of a new kind of freedom.
Red Hill is led by trumpet master Wadada Leo Smith, and his contemplative horn certainly dominates its six spontaneously composed tracks. But Smith’s collaborators and record label bring a listener back to another time. Pianist Jamie Saft may be best known for his work with John Zorn and other New Yorkers from that downtown jazz scene, but he is equally at home in the realm of more avant grade noise rock. Drummer Balazs Pandi (from Hungary) has been collaborating with Saft and the bassist (and, more commonly, guitarist) Joe Morris in bands like Slobber Pup (along with Trevor Dunn of Mr. Bungle). Genres get dicey with these kinds of bands, but the premium is on exploration.
Red Hill sets its sights for the horizon. The rhythm section of Saft, Morris, and Pandi is extremely inventive, providing washes of color and texture that move beneath Smith like an undulating sea. Saft plays mostly acoustic piano, but he blends it with Rhodes as well, using these tools with uncommon invention. Using stabs, rolling figures, clusters of sound, and percussive effects, he assures that the trio never more aimlessly as it finds a way to bolster Smith. His work on “Gneiss” is particularly subtle and distinctive, as chords from both instruments seem to blend into a new whole.
Morris is better known as a guitar player, but his bass work here is compelling. At the start of “Agpaitic”, for example, he is bowing his acoustic in busy conversation with Pandi. He coaxes sounds from the instruments that are so varied and interesting that they sometimes seem to echo the rippling electric piano and, at other times, mimic the reverberating edge of a muted trumpet. Morris plays with an agility when that is required, but he can also wisely lay down low in the mix, operating as a true bottom for the music. “Agpaitic” (a form of rock) acquires a solid presence at the five-minute mark, and Morris locks it down in resonant deep tones before he rises up to play the lead.
Pandi may be a monster of rock on some dates, but Red Hill lets him show off his free jazz expertise — light on touch and continually find a way to keep a groove going without locking into swing or rock cliches. His rolling toms and cymbal splashes on “Tragic Wisdom” sound like mindful presence: listening, reacting, finding new ways to accept things, constantly evolving. His is quietly featured on “Debts of Honor”, with sticks tap-dancing on cymbals in the most precise patterns of surprise.
But the leader here is inevitably Wadada Leo Smith, whose special trumpet voice is the light that leads the way. There are times, for me, when I hear the very best of early 1970s Miles Davis in his playing: not just the Harmon-muted freedom but even preferences for certain intervals. But mostly, Smith sounds every inch himself. He balances playing tonally and beautifully with the courage to play well-beyond predictability. He focuses on the middle of the horn, and while each phrase or line he plays is logical and melodic, he is never stringing together musical cliches, either traditional cliches or “new thing” cliches. As a result, a listener doesn’t easy tire of Smith. His clarion opening to “Arvedsonite” (another mineral) is aggressive and surging, and he leads the band like a star athlete, out front.
On a track like this last one, you can hear the punk influence in a muffled but important way. The rhythm section has a throbbing groove going, with Pandi in a tribal circle of tom-toms and Morris pulsing like lumbering steps. Saft moves across the sonic space playing shards of sound rather than chords. This is not “rock in jazz” in the fusion sense or in a dance-club manner, but it is the No Wave feeling: something that insists and grooves but without being a sound that numbs you. The repetition of the groove pushes your ears to hear new things. It’s urgent. You have to do it.
These are very coherent collective improvisations. Saft reports that each performance was approached with no preconceptions of any kind — that they are pure free improvisations. It’s wonderful to say that, despite the obvious lack of a “repeatable” melody, you would hardly guess that there was no outline for each track. They hang together. But, then again, this kind of thing is not new in jazz.
Where this disc is exceptional is in it’s sound — particularly the recording itself, which produces astonishing sonic clarity even amidst so much improvisation. There are moments when Saft is tickling the highest notes on his acoustic piano at the same moment that Smith’s horn buzzes in the upper register and Pandi’s cymbals are clipping along, yet each sound is distinct and sharp. Kudos to the sound engineer, who must be a musician himself. Red Hill rings like a clarion bell.
RareNoise, the record label behind this collaboration, appears to a have much more wonderful music to offer. Created by two Italian musicians and based in London, it is designed to celebrate music that crosses boundaries. Whether with jazz or otherwise, where else would you want to be?