Barcelona-based Argentine drummer Carlos Falanga has assembled a skilled band of little-known (in the US, anyway) players for his second album as a leader, Quasar. (Buy it from Amazon.) The ensemble includes tenor saxophonist Cesar Joaniquet, pianist Marco Mezquida, Jaume Llombart on Fender Rhodes and synth, guitarist Jordi Matas, and bassist Marko Lohikari. It’s his debut for the Fresh Sound New Talent label, and follows up 2015’s Gran Coral. That album, released on UnderPool, also featured Mezquida on piano and synths and Matas on guitar, while Llombart played electric bass.

The tone of Quasar is set by its first piece, “Kein Angst.” The dominant instrument is Matas’s guitar; Joaniquet’s saxophone is present solely to sing the melody, which is a simple, rockish line with no real harmonic sophistication. The guitar solo is an extrapolation of the melody, with plenty of bluesy sting but a relatively conservative, linear structure. Ultimately, the piece is more of an intro than a full composition, and it ends quickly—like many of the tracks here, it’s only about three minutes long. (The longest of the 12 tracks on Quasar is “The Duellist,” which runs 5:09. The shortest is “Quasar #2,” the album’s coda; it lasts a mere 1:05.)

There’s a lot of guitar-sax unison playing on the album. The keyboardists, by contrast, work around each other, Mezquida taking traditional solos while Llombart adds atmosphere. Lohikari is a subtle presence at best, and Falanga’s drumming frequently has a choppy feel that turns swing into something to be aimed for, but never quite achieved. His strikes can feel so labored, it’s like he’s playing underwater; his hi-hat has the insistence of a small child yanking on an inattentive parent’s pant-leg.

There are times when things get invigoratingly weird, as on “Kinsal,” where the keyboard sounds almost like a theremin, the guitar starts to zing and ripple like Derek Bailey‘s used to, and the saxophone lines start to disintegrate into Peter Brötzmann-like shards of metal. In its softer moments, the music has a chamber-jazz feel; “Ode to Raymond Scott” is a gruff ballad, piano notes tinkling like raindrops on the surface of a pond as Matas’s guitar slides, Bill Frisell-like, in the background, and Joaniquet solos in a manner that’s both meditative and fierce, not unlike David S. Ware at his most restrained. When the band gets really revved up, though, as on “Vega,” their hard-driving, almost rock-like brand of swing is highly invigorating. The saxophone melody is almost Morse code-like, the notes pulsing out steadily as the rest of the band gallops along.

The fact that the tunes on Quasar are so short is an advantage, rather than a weakness. Each piece makes a direct statement, explores its core idea quickly and efficiently, then gets out of the way so the next one can begin. And unlike, say, the work of the JD Allen Trio, where vignette-like compositions blend together into a nearly seamless album-length whole, all the tracks here are discrete and clearly meant to be considered individually, like pop tunes. This group has a strong collective identity, and Quasar is a very enjoyable effort, well worth your attention.

Phil Freeman

Stream Quasar on Spotify:

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