If freely improvised music once meant that the players were “free” to create music that mostly bashed and growled and broke all the harmonic rules, then recent “free playing” is a different beast. It’s still a beast, mind you—it doesn’t provide many snappy hooks or easily digestible connections to pop music—but it is consistently about finding form. Most “jazz” hands the form to the players as a predetermined roadmap. Having to find it yourself, in the moment, may create liberties and require a tolerance for dissonance, but the best free improvisers are masters of hunting down areas of agreement and consonance.
East Axis are a quartet of players who know each other and each other’s approaches but are having a fresh encounter across five spontaneous performances. Pianist Matthew Shipp and drummer Gerald Cleaver have a long history in free improvising, but they are masters of the form. And on Cool with That, they delight in something of a reunion. “Oh Hell I Forget About That” leaps into life from a swirling pair of saxophone and piano lines that barrel ahead with abandon. Still, within a minute, Cleaver is swinging the heck out of them, using his ride cymbal as a lasso to bring the performance into uptempo, driving clarity. Shipp—who can play authoritative post-bop if that’s what the moment desires—is copacetic with the side of Cleaver’s art that grooves in 4/4 time like a horse galloping.
Cleaver’s partner in the rhythm section is bassist Kevin Ray. Ray studied with Reggie Workman and played for a decade with the pianist and extraordinary composer Andrew Hill, so he understands the balance between classic form and freedom at a gut level. When Cleaver is swinging like mad on “Oh Hell”, Ray is right there with him, locking into a rambunctious kind of 4/4. On “Social Distance”, the bass plays a prominent and melodic role in giving this ballad performance a clear sense of tonality if not a locked-in pattern of changes. Ray’s sound, full and bounteous, clarifies that a listener can feel safe amidst the freedom from composed melody–the bottom is warmly in place.
The member of the quartet who is most distinctive, however, is saxophonist Allen Lowe. Lowe may not be the most well-known name, as he works much of the time as a music historian and writer, where he has made distinctive contributions to our understanding of blues, jazz, and other American forms. His playing, like his other work, doesn’t follow a straight, simple line. Raised on bebop but more recently a player beyond boundaries, he sounds like no one else.
On “I’m Cool with That”, for example, Lowe plays an opening line that defines the performance as a blues, carving out a blues line that might have been heard on a 1950s or even 1930s recording. Not that his playing is simple or merely a throwback ingredient on an “out” date. He immediately complicates that blues line with ornamentation and embellishment that strays from the strictly pentatonic, fuzzing the sense of tonality but never really straying from the blues impulse. That is equally clear on the funky-as-all-get-out “One”, which occupies almost a half-hour in a glorious, danceable, off-kilter groove.
There is something profound about Lowe’s sound throughout Cool with That. Though he plays both tenor and alto saxophone on the recording, Lowe’s center of gravity is typically down to earth and full, regardless of the horn he’s playing. He’s not known as a tenor player, yet his sonic sympathies lie in that horn’s chesty and burred range. On “A Side”, he and the rhythm section fall quickly into a circular groove in a triple meter, and the performance amounts to continuous collective improvisation across 12 minutes. Lowe, as the horn, comes off as the leading voice, but his welcoming tone—as well as his interest in playing a continuously interesting line of melody—makes this “free” improvisation sound firmly grounded.
East Axis, as a band, is reminiscent of Keith Jarrett‘s “American Quartet”, featuring Dewey Redman on tenor saxophone, Charlie Haden’s bass, and Paul Motian on drums. That may seem odd—I doubt that many (including Mr. Matthew Shipp himself) think of Shipp as a Jarrett acolyte. But in building that one band, Jarrett surely understood that he was drawing on three players who had pedigrees that were simultaneously lyrical and open to plenty of freedom. Haden and Redman had played with Ornette Coleman in the 1960s, while Motian had roots with pianists Bill Evans and Paul Bley. East Axis has similar DNA, with each member steeped in a luxurious blend of tonality and dissonance. Among Lowe’s influences, I would guess Redman figures prominently, as he swung similarly, placing his notes in a way that made his phrasing riveting no matter how “out” he was playing.
Alternately, of course, we might compare Lowe to Ornette himself, particularly in the way that that they both improvise with clarity and interest in exploring every idea until it had been turned over every which way. Like Ornette, Lowe can sound a bit like a “naive” saxophonist—one who plays as much blues or folk content as he does bebop. And yet, the act of invention is continually ongoing. But which Coleman band really sounded like East Axis? Perhaps the quartet he recorded with in 1996, featuring pianist Geri Allen. This brings your ears back to Shipp.
The two Sound Museum albums from a quarter-century ago were remarkable in presenting Coleman’s harmonically open concept executed with a pianist for the first time in three decades. Allen, like Shipp, was the rare pianist who could use her instrument to shape the harmonic flow of a performance without forcing it to sound tonally restricted or overly cyclical. Even on the tunes that had composed melodies, Coleman and Allen (along with bassist Charnett Moffett and drummer Denardo Coleman) allowed the improvised sections to move with breathtaking openness and surprise. Shipp, it seems finally clear from this recording, has much in common with Allen: a crisp attack on right-hand melodies, a knack for using a tonal center to anchor his playing without being shackled to it, the ability to play dissonances and make them still advance melodic ideas, and a wonderful ear for the playing of his bandmates.
Geri Allen was taken from audiences much too soon, but Matthew Shipp records with incredible frequency these days at the height of his powers, which relieves the pain some. Cool with That is a good listen for Shipp’s playing alone. But add to that the relatively rare pleasure of Lowe and strong free swing we hear from Cleaver and Ray and you have an unusually fine recording.