Set Theory: Live at the Stone (buy it from Amazon) is the third release by Flow Trio—they’ve got one previous live disc on Ayler, and a studio album, Rejuvenation, on ESP-Disk, to their name—and it’s fairly bare-bones. A simple documentation of one night’s work: On April 24, 2009, these three musicians were in John Zorn‘s downtown performance space, The Stone, and played for just under an hour. If you weren’t there, here’s what you missed.
Saxophonist Louie Belogenis is an ideal partner for bassist Joe Morris. The two men pick their notes with care, moving in slow circles around each other like boxers. Charles Downs, a drummer who’s worked with Jemeel Moondoc, the fully improvisational quartet Other Dimensions in Music, and Cecil Taylor, among others, completes the trio’s lineup and its music, never imposing a rhythm when he can accent his bandmates’ contributions with a skittish snare rattle or a gentle wash of cymbals.
The opening title piece finds the group slowly working its way into a groove. Not in the Booker T. & the MGs sense, but in the sense of three men tossing ideas back and forth until they settle on a few that will carry them forward for the next half hour. Belogenis winds out some string; Morris picks it up; Downs figures out where they’re going and sets a pace, eventually taking a drum solo at around the 10-minute mark that balances mere time-marking and the usual drum-solo apocalypse-mongering, managing to maintain the generally thoughtful mood while still creating a powerful individual statement. When Belogenis and Morris return to the fray, each man is playing a little more aggressively, the saxophonist going in a more overtly Albert Ayler-inspired direction than he had at first. Morris and Downs set up a churning rhythm beneath him, and eventually the bassist takes a solo that sounds more like a guimbri than a bass—a big, throbbing sound that calls out for trancelike interpretive dance. Unfortunately, The Stone is New York’s most militantly anti-fun performance space (no beer, no merch table, no talking, just reverent appreciation, usually of improv-with-a-capital-I), so that probably didn’t happen.
“Set Theory” goes awry in its final third, as Belogenis puts down the tenor and hoists the hated soprano sax. To his credit, he’s not as piercing or filling-loosening as most wielders of this most useless of all reed instruments, achieving an almost clarinet-like tone. And the bowed drones Morris sets up behind him are pretty nice. Still, he’s such a muscular tenor player that it really hurts to hear him settle for such an emasculated instrument, even for a short while.
The second piece, “InfinTrinity,” is significantly shorter—”only” about 18 minutes. It begins with sharply bowed tones from Morris and gentle snare tapping from Downs. When Belogenis enters (on tenor), he’s offering biting phrases and fierce roars, bridging the (none too wide in the first place) gap between Ayler and Peter Brötzmann. It’s an aggressive piece, and Morris in particular works hard to make it move, and even swing.
The third and final piece, “The End of Certainty,” is a ballad, meant to cool everyone down after the excitement of “InfinTrinity.” Belogenis picks up the soprano again, lingering as before in the horn’s more clarinet-ish range, as Morris bobbles around and Downs taps his hi-hat. It’s only in the piece’s last couple of minutes that the piercing squeals begin, and even then they’re long, slow, carefully chosen notes rather than Evan Parker-style squiggles. So it’s not nearly as bad as it could quite easily have been. And I’ve come to understand that many other listeners actually enjoy the sound of the soprano. So…
Overall, Set Theory is a solid set by a very good, unheralded jazz group. It’s not trying to make any statement beyond “this happened.” But when the musicians and the music are this good, what more do you need?