Photo: Courtesy of Biophilia Records via Bandcamp

Nortonk Are a Young Band with Jazz Swagger

Nortonk are a young quartet that bring New Jazz composition to the piano-less quartet format. That format adds to the power of this collective voice.

Biophilia Records
21 May 2021

It’s great to hear a band of young musicians who have been playing and developing together. It’s utterly common in some forms of popular music—the realm of the garage band that finally makes a recording—but somewhat less common in jazz, where established leaders tend to take younger musicians into their bands. A group of unknown 20-somethings have to develop a sense of self-identity and cooperation that can help them to do something fresh—and what’s more wonderful in jazz than those qualities?

Nortonk are just such a quartet, named for their professor Kevin Norton (from the front half of his email address, apparently) at the William Paterson College jazz program. Norton is a drummer with a history of bold and diverse performance on the “downtown” New York scene (with Anthony Braxton, Phillip Johnston of the Microscopic Septet, Fred Frith, John Zorn, Steve Lehman, and many others) and his students are equally open-ended in their playing. The format, however, connects them to a specific history and sound.

The group consists of trumpet (Thomas Killackey), alto saxophone (Gideon Forbes), bass (Stephen Pale), and drums (Steven Cramer). Bands in this format—without piano, guitar, or vibes to provide chordal accompaniment—were once rare, with the vintage examples being the Gerry Mulligan Quartet with Chet Baker’s trumpet and Ornette Coleman’s original group, featuring Don Cherry’s brass, the latter being a near-perfect example of a young band that developed their own unique sound. The last quarter-century has seen the format flourish, however, with groups as different as Steve Bernstein’s Sexmob, John Zorn’s Masada Quartet, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, bassist Stephan Crump’s Rhombal band, and a group fronted by young trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, among many others. It’s no longer a novelty but an established format. Success in the format requires good writing and strong playing, of course. But the larger question is whether these young musicians have a strong idea, something interesting to say with and to the history they are engaging.

The answer is yes.

The centerpiece of Nortonk is a set of compositions that are diverse and uncategorizable. Of course, as befits members of this generation, they smack of the New Jazz—with shifting time signatures, complex structures and patterns, never simply song forms that swing and open up into a string of solos. “GLaDOS” (composed by Cramer, the drummer), for example, has a series of playful pattern/sequences, strung together into something bigger. The first theme is a set of three rising lines, played with a staccato pop, that have five notes, then four, then three. As the pattern is repeated by trumpet and alto sax, it falls into and out of phase and the lines become slurred into a legato—before both the phasing and the phrasing snap crisply back again. All the while bass and drums prod and push at the pattern with a free sense of pulse.

A second theme appears as contrast, using lines that do not “move in one direction”, though they continue the idea of short bursts that vary in length. This theme opens up into a set of short improvisations that alternate between saxophone and trumpet, with a shorter interlude breaking them up, again using patterns of five and four. A relaxed interlude improvisation follows at mutable ballad tempo, resolving into a lush third theme—only to have the performance end with a return to the staccato Theme Two.

Not every track here is a complex journey. Saxophonist Forbes penned two of these, different from each other but perhaps each a bit easier to grapple with as a “song”. “Chutes and Ladders” is, appropriately, a highly playful theme for the horns, jabbering in a combination of unison and harmony. Forbes takes a hip solo over an unusual rhythm pattern from bass/drums, which leads to a second theme with longer tones than the first. Collective improvisation returns us to the opening theme in under four minutes, total. “Spiders”, by contrast, is a cool ballad for the horns—something you could almost imagine appearing on a Miles Davis or Art Farmer album (okay, almost), but then featuring a first duet improvisation from Cramer and Pale on drums and bass. A loping medium tempo sits beneath the alto/trumpet improvisation, with a last theme ending the performance with its initial appearance.

So, although these tunes are not theme-solos-theme, they appeal in ways that relate the tradition.

The band can and are willing to swing. “Duuzh” by trumpeter Killackey takes off at a fast walking swing, the rhythm section sounding reasonably like Art Blakey and Jymie Merritt. The written melody also sounds like it would have been credible on, perhaps, a mid-1960s Wayne Shorter album, with crackling phrases running around a set of sly but hearable harmonies. The horns solo in conversation, but they work within a single tonal center that keeps your ears from exploding too much—with a fun ride carrying you. Killackey’s “Herzog” also reaches back a couple of generations, this time to the kind of slinky, minor tune that might evoke a noir-ish spy film soundtrack. The written portion keeps evolving over minutes in slow, engaging motion. It is a hypnotic, slow-drag beauty, with the horns soloing together only at the 3/4 mark.

“Quat” is from the pen of bassist Pale, and it has the most Ornette Coleman in its compositional DNA, a spritely melodic line that has a stop-start feeling that follows its heart much in the way that a folk song might—not feeling the need to conform to a particular bar count. The horn soloists take turns more traditionally as well, each spelling out their story with the theme restated in the middle.

If there is a weakness to Nortonk, it is that the soloists—in their instrumental sounds and improvisational style—haven’t matured into identifiable, distinctive voices yet. Killackey has a pleasantly tart trumpet voice, marked a little by Kenny Dorham and Woody Shaw and perhaps also by near-peers such as Ambrose Akinmusire. But in both his sound and how he constructs improvised lines, there is still anonymity about his sound, even as it generates real heat and excitement. Forbes’s alto saxophone sound is clean and glassy for the most part, though capable of growl and inflection as necessary. His melodic choices use unusual intervals that remind me a bit of Henry Threadgill or Steve Coleman without seeming imitative. However, both of Nortonk’s wind instruments are more interesting and distinctive as compositional elements rather than improvising soloists, at least so far. Pale and Cramer are a potent bass/drums duo, working a polyrhythmic approach to the band’s combination of swing, New Jazz complexity, and free time. But neither is a distinctive solo voice yet.

That hardly matters, though. The collective voice of Nortonk is where it’s at. Over years playing together as students and now professionals, both their compositional and improvisational voices have developed group swagger. The performances have an organic quality, with the group dynamic sounding authentic and earned—the way that each voice pushes and pulls the others, and the way that each band member’s writing is clearly built for the dynamics of this band in particular.

The piano-less quartet format adds to the power of this collective voice, with each individual clearly audible in an excellent recording, the whole band circling and bouncing off each other in these whirling compositions. Nortonk is applying many of the lessons of the New Jazz—particularly showing how satisfying it can be to hear instrumental compositions that are blended with improvisation in organic but complex ways—to a format that has more typically been used to play simpler stuff. It is a collective voice well worth hearing.

RATING 7 / 10