The Unknowable isn’t one of those free jazz projects that’s spear-headed by one particular musician. With saxophonist Dave Liebman being flanked by two percussionists, you can be forgiven for wrongly assuming that he’s a the star of the show here. Instead, The Unknowable is one of those bizarre meeting of the minds where two percussionists seem to have just as much power over the sound as does one wind instrument — perhaps even more. From the first track alone, it’s clear that this isn’t an Ornette Coleman kind of experiment. These three guys are sailing up, up and away, far from what most people would call contemporary jazz.
Dave Liebman, Adam Rudolph, and Tatsuya Nakatani have known each other and worked with each other in various ensembles over the years, but this disc marks their first time as a trio. Between the three of them, no less than 18 instruments are being used in real time to create a stew of sounds that would put a musical therapist on edge. These include a thumb piano, a Fender Rhodes, four pieces of a handrumset, three different kinds of flutes, a mbuti harp, pieces of metal, and live electronic processing. The Unknowable may come across as some sort of studio Frankenstein on paper, but Liebman, Rudolph, and Nakatani can probably replicate most of these weird sounds on stage if you asked them to.
This music marks the point where noise and ambient meet while on free jazz turf. Completely improvised, it shows no allegiance to genre or geographic location. Just when you think that Eastern sounds will prevail, the wind blows the notion away to either the west or nowhere familiar. Song titles like “Skyway Dream”, “The Turning”, and “The Simple Truth” are intentionally vague, almost suggesting that these titles are of little-to-no importance. The percussive aspect is certainly more than just two guys banging on things. The sounds they conjure range from minimalist onstinatos to metallic screeching. Liebman’s saxophone will occasionally get an echo treatment where the ends of his phrases will morph into a new soundscape of its own before it fades away completely.
The Unknowable is one of those albums where I find myself checking the credits over and over again. Is nobody playing a distorted electric guitar? Did a fourth person drop into the studio to lay down some synthesizer? Was everything here truly improvised, or did someone start with a germ of an idea and not admit it? And am I certain that this album wasn’t recorded in a Tibetan cave miles above sea level and not some studio in New Jersey? The credits prove me wrong on all counts, but that still leaves the challenge of coming up with a label for this kind of music. But if song titles for improvised instrumental pieces are about as important to you as genre labels, then you have nothing to lose by taking the plunge into The Unknowable.