Trombonist Samuel Blaser has been around for a while, but I only became aware of him a few years ago, on his 2009 album Pieces of Old Sky. He was backed there by the same band I’d heard on drummer Tyshawn Sorey‘s brilliant, introspective, almost lowercase Koan (guitarist Todd Neufeld and bassist Thomas Morgan, plus Sorey), and I attempted to listen to the two records as companion pieces, even though they didn’t actually have that much in common. Pieces was a much “jazzier” album than Koan, while retaining the abstract and exploratory feeling of the Sorey disc. Anyway, Blaser’s name stuck with me as someone I intended to pay attention to in the future. In 2011 and 2012, he released two albums on Hatology—Boundless and As the Sea—with a quartet consisting of guitarist Marc Ducret, bassist Banz Oester, and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Also in 2011, he formed a band called Consort in Motion with pianist Russ Lossing, Morgan Thomas on bass again, and drummer Paul Motian. The group’s self-titled album, on the Kind of Blue label, combined Renaissance and Baroque music with jazz improvisation. That seemed like an interesting idea to me, but I never got around to hearing the album, because I’m just not a big fan of Motian’s.
Well, in the wake of the drummer’s death, Blaser has reconfigured Consort in Motion; on their second album, A Mirror to Machaut, the ensemble features Joachim Badenhorst on tenor sax, clarinet, and bass clarinet; Lossing on piano, Wurlitzer, and Fender Rhodes; Drew Gress on bass; and Gerry Hemingway on drums. The music has traveled even farther back in time, too—the album combines avant-jazz improvisation (and some composed pieces) with 15th Century court music by Guillaume de Machaut and Guillaume Dufay.
Here’s a nearly 10-minute video about the making of the album, directed by Mathieu Mastin:
Surprisingly, given its source material, A Mirror to Machaut would be hard to describe as “chamber jazz”; there’s a little bit of that in the opening “Hymn,” but there’s more than a tinge of mid ’60s Blue Note exploration as the album goes on, too. The way the spacious trombone/clarinet interactions of “Saltarello” lead into the somehow mournful and aggressive at the same time “Dame, Se Vous M’estes Lointeinne” (it helps that it’s mostly a drum solo; Hemingway is an absolute beast here) reminds me of Eric Dolphy‘s Out to Lunch in its persistent attempts to throw the listener off balance. On “Color,” by contrast, Lossing’s electric piano playing, which reminds me of Chick Corea‘s, and Badenhorst’s reeds bring to mind Miles Davis‘s Bitches Brew.
Blaser’s other major 2013 release (so far) is One From None, by the Michael Bates/Samuel Blaser Quintet, on the Fresh Sound New Talent imprint. In addition to Blaser and bassist Bates, the group features Lossing on piano, saxophonist Michael Blake and drummer Jeff Davis. As you might expect from the label it’s on and the makeup of the band, it’s a more straight-ahead record than A Mirror to Machaut, though it has some of the same atmospheric qualities at times. Blaser contributes three of the album’s eight compositions (“Recurring Dream,” “Rising Moon” and “It Began to Get Dark”), while Bates writes the rest.
The disc-opening title track has the qualities of a fanfare; Blaser takes a lengthy and gutsy solo, with Blake murmuring commentary behind him, as Lossing creates a soft bed of midnight clouds with the Rhodes and Davis clatters around his kit. On the second track, though, the group finds a path between hard bop and late ’60s proto-fusion, when electric keyboards were new and being used to add an almost psychedelic spaciness to jazz, instead of pulling the music toward the dance floor. The interaction between Blaser and Blake is exciting—they work through the pieces’ longish melodies without surrendering to the tedium of modern jazz’s “watch-my-fingers” fascination with technical mastery and compositional trickery. This is entertaining, emotionally stimulating music, and even though I don’t think it’s a working band, the group as a whole has built a voice which is clearly perceptible throughout the album.
Stream “One From None” below:
Both these albums, and many others, are available on Samuel Blaser’s Bandcamp page.