This avant-ish ensemble, led by drummer John Hollenbeck, has been operating since 1997; this is album number five. It’s a disc ruled by concept as much as by execution. Each member of the ensemble—saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, vibraphonist Matt Moran, accordion player Ted Reichman, and bassist Drew Gress (yeah, him again)—gets a solo interlude during which two recordings are played with/against each other. These are cool, but they help put the album into a New Music rather than a jazz context, since they’re so clearly the result of studio artifice. Does that matter to you? It doesn’t to me; I love On the Corner way too much to complain about an album not being a verité recording of in-the-moment improv.
What I can, and will, complain about is the overall vibe of this disc, which doesn’t quite work for me. The uptempo “Keramag,” all semi-looping percussion and gently backgrounded reeds, comes off like something Frank Zappa might have composed for a player piano. “Paterna Terra,” by contrast, marries droning and squealing saxophone to an almost overactive kick-drum; Hollenbeck sounds like he’s warming up to play a set with Slayer. Other tracks, like “Armitage Shanks” and the relentless “Sphinx,” are based around almost Steve Reich-like melodies, and frankly, all that vibraphone starts to make my teeth loosen in their sockets after a while. Speed manages to keep the clarinet from getting too klezmer-ish, which is an act of mercy not to be undervalued, and Gress’s bass playing is much more forceful here than it was on Bill Carrothers’ Joy Spring. The album’s title track, which is a showcase for Speed’s tenor playing, has one of those meandering melodies that have been dominant on the East Coast for years now and show no sign of fading away, as players as different as Chris Potter, Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa all indulge in them to one degree or another. (I blame Steve Coleman.) The final track, “For Frederick Franck,” is the most subdued and beautiful piece on the whole disc, particularly when it pares itself down to a core of vibes, piano and Hollenbeck drumming by hand.
There’s a lot to appreciate about this record. These six guys clearly have an almost intuitive musical relationship, developed over nearly fifteen years together, and that’s great. But the timbres of the combined instruments just make my nerve-endings itch. So it gets the weird combination of an A for effort and a thumbs-down from me.
1. Do I foresee myself listening to this record again? No.
2. Should you buy this record? If you like this band, or this sort of thing generally, then by all means, Yes.
Link to purchase, if you’re so inclined…