Clarinet/Vibes Quartet... whimsical and daring at once.
Bands featuring a clarinet up front are still rare enough in modern jazz. Add that the chording instrument is the vibraphone and you're in even more unusual space. There's ancient history (Benny Goodman playing with Lionel Hampton), or you might point to Ralph Peterson's more recent "Fo'tet", which once featured Don Byron. This band is not much like either of those groups, however.
Klang is led by James Falzone's clarinet and has made three prior recordings. Fellow Chicagoans Jason Adasiewicz (vibes), Jason Roebke (bass) and Tim Daisy (drums) round out the group. The better points of connection are Ornette Coleman and Jimmy Giuffre, I suppose, or the kind of robust but accessible free jazz that is associated with The Windy City: Ken Vandermark or, ancient history now, the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Klang is more than happy to get out beyond the boundaries of traditional harmony, but Falzone is hardly a wild man: he is eager to keep you happy and interested in what's going on.
What distinguishes this group is what might be called a precise and tidy approach to freedom. "Jazz Searching Itself", for example, is as neat as pin—a super-crisp theme that has the band playing in very careful coordination. The theme is tricky and quick with no loose ends at all, the drummer and bass player required to step to precision as much as the melody players. But this short theme also explodes with different elements of time and harmony such that it never sounds like an old-fashioned exercise in bop. It is sandwiched between two other pieces in a suite—"Alone at the Brain" moves mysteriously like a Mingus or Dolphy composition, modulating suddenly from quiet to loud, and "It Felt As If Time Had Stopped" is a mournful ballad that is no less careful in setting exact parts for the vibes and bass before giving way to a dark and thrilling solo for vibes. Every step of this music, you know, has been thought through, even though the improvisations are "free".
Not that Falzone and company can't get up a certain reckless kind of groove. "Ukrainian Village" has a rumbling walking bass and clattering drums sound that sounds like a dark sort of jazz before it shifts to a moment of precision, followed by some thumping free-funk. It's equally telling that the middle of this tune becomes tempo-less—starting with a high clarinet trill that the whole band takes up and developing into a free-time vibes solo that allows Adasiewicz to solo like Cecil Taylor with a pair of mallets.
In other places, Falzone's background in classical music comes through, showing some of the Giuffre influence. "Ground" sets us a couple of lyrical, interlocking patterns for reach of the four voices. The improvisation, however, is collective and daring—the farthest thing from any "third stream" music. "Blue Jays" is a theme in 5/4 time, a neat little puzzle that contorts the rhythm as it changes and moves through phases, a wheel-within-a-wheel piece. But then "Carol's Burgers" is fun swinger that taps your toe for you, including neat little drum breaks and a 32-bar harmonic structure pretty darn close to "I Got Rhythm". Fun!
There is, perhaps, an inevitable delicacy to the basic sound of Klang. Falzone's clarinet has a variety of different tones, from woody and low to more strident, and Adasiewicz certainly conjures a multitude of sounds: harsh and metallic to thrumming and chill. But it remains that this kind of band creates a "chamber jazz" sound that favors a certain kind of cool. I'll admit that, as fine and imaginative as this recording is, it feels a bit like a meal of tapas—wonderful and flavorful and maybe just slightly less filling than I wish. But that's nitpicking.
As with so much of the best jazz in the last decade, Klang has no interest whatsoever in the old jazz battles between different camps or schools. These are musicians equally at home with freedom and notation, jazz and "new music", dissonance and languid beauty. The ostinato bass line of "Sciuridae" is fun to listen to, but so are the totally free improvisations called "Chicago Spaces". The music here blurs and blends. It's not smooth or background-y, but it's no chore to listen to either.
Falzone has much in common with the finest folks in his generation of jazz players—a daring ability to make this art music both ambitious and delightful. Klang deserves an audience well beyond both Chicago and Brooklyn.