You know that drum & bass is losing its commercial viability when one of its preeminent practitioners turns to improvisational free jazz. Yet, that's just what's happened to Spring Heel Jack.
The British duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales made several well-respected albums during the mid-to-late '90s, 1996's debut 68 Million Shades chief among them, that explored the more impressionistic side of drum & bass without totally sacrificing its sense of structure. They also created the music for Everything but the Girl's groundbreaking "Walking Wounded" single. The turn of the millennium, however, saw them tired of drum & bass' limitations. Or something like that. In a move precedented maybe only by Talk Talk in the late '80s, they turned away from their electronics-based roots in favor of raw, earthy free jazz. The "Blue Series" of collaborative efforts was born. Coxon and Wales have subsequently worked with the likes of Spiritualized guitarist (and old pal) Jason Pierce and pianist Michael Shipp, releasing a pair of studio albums and a live collection. Now comes the fourth entry in the series, The Sweetness of the Water.
This time the collaborators are trumpet player Wadada Leo Smith, saxophonist Evan Parker, bassist John Edwards and percussionist Mark Sanders. Coxon and Wales's performance input is minimal; ironically, the only real members of Spring Heel Jack are reduced to providing background guitar and electronic effects on their own album. Furthermore, only half of the album's eight tracks feature both men playing together, although they are in on all the songwriting. But with jazz, you can do that sort of thing.
The Sweetness of the Water, with its minimal album art and stark song titles (the first song on the album is called "Track Four", etc.) would like to think it's avant-garde -- and it is, inasmuch as it's a mostly cacophonic, difficult listen. It opens with Smith's trumpet squealing atonally through shards of guitar, scraping sounds and cascading percussion, and that's pretty much the template. On "Quintet" a psychedelic organ adds to the high-anxiety atmosphere, but an actual chord doesn't make itself heard until three tracks in, on the haunting "Lata". It's a pretty chord, too, played on a keyboard while bells ring and Parker's soprano sax goes cuckoo out in front. Just when The Sweetness of the Water is beginning to feel like it has a purpose, though, "Duo" clangs along with all the grace of an extremely large man noisily pillaging a junk yard. Things do get better. On "Track Two", Edwards's double bass and Wales's treated piano hint at a genuine rapport for the first time on the album; by the composition's end, a bassline has been established -- another first. "Autumn", an extended coda of swelling keyboard noise and prettily chiming bells, is a fitting ending.
Free jazz is such a love-it-or-leave-it affair, and The Sweetness of the Water is no exception. For decades, those who have claimed that John Coltrane's "difficult" free jazz pieces are nothing more than drug-fuelled rants have been met head on by those who hear them as nothing short of transcendent musical expressions. Regardless of how you hear it, however, The Sweetness of the Water's problem is that you've heard it before. It's a more abrasive, vocal-free take on Talk Talk's Spirit of Eden, or a less funky version of Herbie Hancock's Mwandishi.
You can't blame Coxon and Wales for following their musical instincts, but if they're going to do free jazz, they're going to have to accept its pitfalls, too. The Sweetness of the Water sounds like a group of musicians tuning up and feeling each other out. If they ever hit their stride together, it wasn't captured here.