In most cases, long-form improvisation succeeds when the players not only conjure a variety of moods over the course of the performance but also connect them together in a seamless fashion. Live- recording scenarios are also advantageous; although nothing tops being there in person to hear accomplished musicians creating in real time, hearing it unedited and uninterrupted from a CD proves an honest substitute. Many of the truly great free jazz ensembles of the last 15 years — Peter Brötzmann’s Die Like a Dog, the Fred Anderson/Kidd Jordan Quartet and Test come immediately to mind — work almost exclusively in this milieu, relying on the raw aesthetic of live performances instead of trying to recreate it in a studio.
Based on those criteria, this 65-minute improvised set by drummer Gerald Cleaver, bassist William Parker and pianist Craig Taborn is a success of the highest order. The three have worked together in various permutations for the better part of this decade (Cleaver and Taborn’s relationship extends even further, dating back to their days at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s), but this recording becomes the first to capture their recent ventures as an established and cooperative trio. It’s an auspicious debut to say the least; a section titled “Korteh Khah” immediately reveals the depths of the trio’s talent as Cleaver affects an odd vocalise, sounding something like Brazilian talk radio picked up on a shortwave frequency.
The transition connecting “Korteh Khah” to “The Night” signals the only real slow point of the performance, as it slightly breaks down to sparse piano chords and extended bass techniques while the trio searches for the next path to pursue. This quest for common ground continues on through the first two minutes of “Cranes”, until Parker begins bowing in the upper register (which has long been the most mystical quality of his sound) and magnetically pulls the piano and drums together. At 16:40, “Cranes” clocks in as the longest-individual segment of the set and also one of the most satisfying — Taborn employs an inventive stutter in his comping and pushes the trio’s interaction to intense levels, as Cleaver echoes Tony Williams in the subtly crashing groove that leads to another, slightly mournful transition.
The next section, “Not Unlike Number 10”, begins with ominous pulsing from Parker’s bass before exploding into high-energy playing from the entire trio. Taborn’s percussively influenced playing in this segment is remarkable, perfectly attuned to Cleaver’s polyrhythmic stride. Over 15 minutes, the energy level builds to a frenetic pitch complete with gospel-like vocal outbursts from Cleaver before resolving in a static transition that opens up into “In Trees”. Here, Parker experiments with a circular bass pattern before conducting a telepathic sweep into the most traditional free jazz piano trio playing heard in the entire set, which eventually dissipates back to the bassist’s unaccompanied transition to the final movement.
Cleaver joins Parker in the piece titled “Fieda Mytlie” with a tom-heavy rhythm and ghostly vocals that evoke both Jorge Ben and Tuvan-throat singers. The drummer is also responsible for the grand finale, stepping forward after some tentative experimentation with a walking-bass pattern to drive the piece to an uplifting conclusion that falls apart as carefully as it was built. Thus, the set is over in a flurry of applause and audience exhortations, but not without establishing the trio as a powerful entity via the formidable amount of magic that transpires throughout the performance.