The Empty Cage Quartet is a West Coast ensemble that reminds me of the New York group Other Dimensions in Music. Like ODiM, ECQ blends free jazz with swing, atmospherics with dual-horn eruptions, rumbling bass and delicately rattling drums with pensive melody. They’ve got two new(ish) albums out, one on the Portuguese Clean Feed label and another on France’s Rude Awakening Presenté, and I’ve decided to review both today, the only double review of this month-long endeavor.
Gravity is divided into two suites, “Gravity” and “Tzolkien,” and the quartet switches back and forth between the two, performing a section or sections of “Gravity” on one track, then a section or sections of “Tzolkien” on the next, and on and on. Honestly, without looking at the CD (Clean Feed’s releases come in really nice little cardboard folders) it’s difficult to tell which piece they’re digging into at any given time. Each has propulsive, swinging sections, and each has drawn-out, Art Ensemble of Chicago-ish, you-make-a-noise-and-then-I’ll-make-one sections. So there’s no lurching back and forth between styles, just 55 minutes or so of highly communicative improvisation. There’s a system at work—according to the liner notes, it has something to do with the Mayan calendar, or “harmonic palindromes”—but that won’t matter to the casual listener. Only the beauty of the music, which seems Chicago-esque to me, counts. (If you really want to read more, click here.)
Trumpeter Kris Tiner reminds me of Wadada Leo Smith in the way his lines are collections of individual notes, each given space to fully actualize itself. Reedist (he goes back and forth between clarinet and alto sax) Jason Mears is an ideal partner for Tiner, harmonizing with him but also working against him when the moment calls for it. Bassist Ivan Johnson and drummer Paul Kikuchi are more than a “rhythm section”; they never settle for merely laying a floor down for Tiner and Mears to dance on. As with the Art Ensemble, or Other Dimensions, any player can take the lead at any moment, but the music never degenerates into mere anarchy, or too-timid scribbling.
When guitarist Patrice Soletti and clarinetist Aurélien Besnard join the group on Take Care of Floating, things change quite a bit. Soletti favors distortion and a certain Sonny Sharrock-ian jaggedness, while Besnard’s melodic, vocal clarinet lines beef up the horn section in a traditionalist manner. The bassist and drummer, meantime, settle into much more conventional timekeeping roles than they did on Gravity—this is a free-ish, but swinging album of discrete, catchy tunes. At least, it would be if Besnard didn’t keep taking off on long, Evan Parker-ish squiggling runs that demonstrate lung-power at the expense of discipline, as he does on the overlong “Carry the Beautiful.” This ain’t Nipples, buddy. Tone it down a little. The album’s second half seems to delve deeper into collective improv territory at the expense of melody and rhythm. The concluding track, “Pieces of Bicuspid,” brings it all home again, though, with everyone swinging together and the added element of a TV whispering staticky nothings in the background. Ultimately, Soletti’s contributions are complementary, but Besnard’s aren’t, really. Take Care of Floating demonstrates that Empty Cage can play fairly trad jazz when the mood strikes them, but Gravity shows that they’re at their best on their own.
1. Do I foresee myself listening to either of these records again? Yes, both, but Gravity for sure.
2. Should you buy either of these records? Yes, both.