Anteloper have been around for a few years, but Pink Dolphins is the first time the duo has worked with an outside producer, in this case, Jeff Parker. Jason Nazary handles the drums and synths, while Jaimie Branch plays trumpet and adds other electronics. The press materials mention that Parker was handed hours and hours of improvised sessions from the duo. His job was to distill that music into something resembling actual songs, returning the pieces to Anteloper to refine further.
It’s an intriguing way to work, and the results are audibly the product of the two approaches. There’s an open quality to these five tracks that show all the hallmarks of improvisation. Nazary’s drums, in particular, tend to bounce and rattle around and don’t always lock into a solid pattern. Branch’s trumpet playing is similar in that she’s often just adding musical color, but every now and then hits upon something recognizable as a melody. I’ll confess to not being a fan of anything-goes free jazz, so Pink Dolphins worked best for me whenever Parker could isolate a particularly striking groove and get Anteloper to explore it.
The opener “Inia” doesn’t quite qualify as one of those pieces. Nazary’s drumbeat is relatively steady, a quick-moving rhythm that switches between snare and hi-hat with occasional bass drum kicks. Pulsing low electronics augment the bass drum, and higher-end sounds give the track a semblance of musical motion for its first few minutes. Branch joins in on trumpet around the halfway point, adding fast trills at first but settling into more of a sparse, late-night blues style as she goes on. In the last 30 seconds, the drums fade away as electronic noises increase, but only briefly before dropping off. “Inia” has enough forward motion to carry the music through its 4:30 running time, but it doesn’t really have a melodic center to make it memorable.
The second track, “Delfin Rosado”, seemingly starts mid-jam but very quickly settles into a solid groove. Nazary’s beat is catchy but with enough variation to keep it interesting. Branch has a genuine trumpet melody as well, returning to it frequently over the song’s 6:30 running time. Parker adds a bass guitar much of the time, complementing Nazary’s beat and filling out the low end. Guest musician Chad Taylor adds the unusual metallic sounds of the mbira to the track, giving it a strange chiming texture that really takes over the song’s final two minutes. Parker makes this track shine as a successful example of the synthesis between production and improvisation.
“Baby Bota Halloceanation” doesn’t hit the same highs. At only 3:37 and filled with trumpet meanderings, it’s the song that feels the most like an extracted portion of a much more extended jam. It hits the ground running with Navalny in a drum groove while low-key electronic warbles bounce around in the background. Branch’s trumpet disappears around the 2:15 mark, leaving the song with 80 seconds of loose drumming and low buzzing electronics before it fades out.
On the other hand, the album’s centerpiece, the eight-minute-plus “Earthlings”, is an absolute triumph. It opens in a low jazz-blues style as Branch sings in a classic mid-century blues fashion. This opening couple of minutes sounds like a more ramshackle version of 1990s trip-hop group Portishead. Navalny’s skittering drums provide an interesting accompaniment, but it’s Parker’s sneaky guitar riff that gives the song its melodic center. After the first two minutes, Navalny’s drumbeat fully lines up with Parker’s riff, and it’s such a solid groove that it carries the entire rest of the song. Electronic sounds accompany Branch’s vocals, mimicking her melody and giving it more heft.
While “Earthlings” is maybe the best-case scenario for the collaboration between Anteloper and Parker, the nearly 15-minute closer “One Living Genus” shows the partnership’s limits. Spacey electronics set the tone here, fuzzily opening the piece until Navalny comes in with a spare beat after about a minute. The electronics continue to buzz and swoop while clashing pipe organ-esque chords intrude. It’s harsh and unsettling, at least until a passing thread of a melody goes by on a synth. Parker picks up this melody and turns it into a guitar riff that gives the song a melodic anchor while retaining the unsettling mood.
That guitar disappears around five minutes in, though, and the track drifts through white noise for a while. Then, what sounds like a clarinet but eventually coalesces into a muted trumpet shows up to noodle around. Parker briefly reprises the riff from “Earthlings” here to great melodic effect, except that it ends up being the catchiest part of “One Living Genus”. If the best part of a track is the bit that directly quotes another song from the same album, it’s an issue.
Also at issue here is that Navalny’s drums stop entirely just past the halfway point of the running time. Throughout the album, the drums provide the rhythmic anchor and keep Anteloper’s music relatively upbeat. Once the drums are gone, listeners are treated to six-plus minutes of slow-moving organ chords and electronic noise. These minutes don’t go anywhere musically, so it feels like an incredibly long fadeout that lasts almost as long as the song proper. It seems like an illustration that Anteloper are at their best as a duo when the drums and trumpet are playing together, and the electronics provide ambiance and support.
Pink Dolphins is, for all its idiosyncrasies, a very interesting listen. These five tracks clock in at less than 40 minutes, and only “One Living Genus” manages to wear out its welcome. Unless one is already into jazz improv, jam-rock, or ambient electronics, the record may be a tough sell. For those predisposed to any or all of those styles, though, this album has a lot to like. Navalny and Branch are creative enough that it feels like they’re perpetually on the brink of making something really musically engaging, and Parker’s expertise finds a way to bring out those moments.