Photo: Vera Marmelo

Portuguese tenor saxophonist Rodrigo Amado is a restless musical traveler who, despite working firmly within the “free” idiom, prefers groups to ad hoc encounters, and genuine ideas to the everyone-empty-their-bag-of-tricks-at-the-same-time approach too popular these days. His latest releases include two albums by a long-running group (and a guest), and one by a brand-new band.

Amado’s Motion Trio, with cellist Miguel Mira and drummer Gabriel Ferrandini, launched in 2009 with a self-titled disc on the European Echoes label. Three years later, they were joined by trombonist Jeb Bishop for a pair of releases—Burning Live at Jazz ao Centro, on JACC, and The Flame Alphabet, on Not Two. And now they’ve returned, with another pair of discs, recorded within days of each other. Live in Lisbon, taped March 16 of last year, and The Freedom Principle, a studio date from two days later, find the trio hosting trumpeter Peter Evans, who’s possibly best known as a member of the witty Mostly Other People Do The Killing but who’s generally one of those New York guys who’ll play with anyone who’s doing something interesting. Both the live and studio discs are on the excellent Lithuanian label NoBusiness.

Amado’s other new release is another studio date, this one from late January 2011 and recorded with a group dubbed the Wire Quartet (likely not in tribute to the magazine, but one never knows), which includes guitarist Manuel Mota, bassist Hernani Faustino, and Ferrandini once again on drums. The track titles—”Abandon Yourself,” “Surrender,” “To the Music”—suggest full-on improv, but there’s enough muscle on display to make the whole thing feel thought-out. Amado’s saxophone style is thick and fuzzy, part of a lineage that runs from Ben Webster through Archie Shepp to Mats Gustafsson—he plays the tenor like he wishes it was a baritone, his phrases erupting like gas pockets bubbling from a crack in the earth. Mota’s playing is spiky and sharp; he does that fingers-caught-in-the-strings thing really well, but with enough talent to bring it up and down at will, so that there’s an actual conversation going on between guitar and saxophone. When Amado reduces his own playing to a low murmur, Mota slides his fingers back and forth, creating just enough sound to keep his presence notable. Given the skronky and non-swinging (despite a strong showing by Ferrandini) nature of this music, there’s not as much for Faustino to do as might be hoped. The guitarist and saxophonist provide the vast majority of the entertainment, but if you listen for him, he’s there, giving the whole thing a little more depth of field.

Live in Lisbon, the first of the two NoBusiness releases, offers two side-long tracks (it’s a limited edition LP) in slightly under 40 minutes. The titles—”Conflict is Intimacy” and “Music is the Music Language”—suggest a philosophy at work in the music. It all begins with the trumpeter releasing one burst of energy after another, as the saxophonist meanders along in a slightly more linear mode; it calls to mind the cartoon bulldog who paces implacably forward as a tiny chihuahua leaps and cavorts around him. Ferrandini’s drumming is wild and unfettered, which has the ironic effect—as free drumming so frequently does—of creating a weird kind of stasis. In the absence of traditional rhythm, the music seems to hover and congeal like a cloud. But eventually things get pleasingly odd, as Evans and Amado both begin hissing and popping, making kissy noises through their respective horns and generally seeming to evolve communication in some invented language. The second piece begins with a lengthy passage of extended, droning notes from both horns, before erupting into polyphonic dialogue as Ferrandini barrages the two men with more clattering, explosive kit-work. Throughout the performance/album, Amado takes a back seat to Evans, allowing him to dominate proceedings to an extraordinary degree. Fortunately, the trumpeter is entertaining as hell, spending solid chunks of his solo time literally shouting and jabbering through the horn. The raucous joy of Live in Lisbon ultimately becomes its most appealing characteristic.

The Freedom Principle, recorded two days later in the studio, is a more evenly balanced effort; Amado’s is the first voice heard on the nearly 27-minute, disc-opening title track; he blows short, brusque phrases like he’s walking around the room muttering to himself, with Mira thumping the cello’s strings and Ferrandini rattling around in the back, oblivious. Evans enters, playing what sounds like the trumpet equivalent of circular breathing—a long hovering line that wavers in a Doppler-effect manner before fading away, then resuming. A tinging bell causes both men to drop into a lower gear, the trumpeter growling as the saxophonist begins to play gently fluttering, almost flutelike notes. Eventually, the music enters a more conventionally beautiful space, Amado and Evans circling each other in a pleasingly free-boppish manner. This kind of pianoless-quartet free playing can be heavily indebted to Ornette Coleman, for good or ill, but that’s not the case here; if anything, the resonant antecedents are Sonny Rollins and Don Cherry on the saxophonist’s Our Man in Jazz album, or Daniel Carter and the late Roy Campbell with Other Dimensions In Music. What sets Amado’s Motion Trio apart, though, is the sparseness of Mira and Ferrandini’s contribution. They rarely function as a traditional rhythm section, never seeking to drive the music forward or make it swing; instead, they provide accents and foundations, leaving it up to the horns to create their own frameworks and occupy them. Indeed, thrilling as the rhythmatists’ playing often is, much of the music on The Freedom Principle could have been just as satisfying cast as Amado-Evans duets.

Phil Freeman

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