By Paul Acquaro
Ward is a clarinetist and guitarist from the UK who has been working in free improvised music, rock, and jazz since the mid-80s and has long been associated with musicians like Steve Noble, Simon H. Fell, and Duck Baker, as well as leading the group Forebrace, among other quintet and sextets. Making up the rest of the group is another long term associate of Ward, drummer Jam Doulton, as well as the aforementioned Sassi and bassist Santiago Horro. Since last hearing from Forebrace on 2013’s Bad Folds, the group has retained its hard edge and avowed allegiance to the influences of Miles Davis, Last Exit, and Prime Time, and they seem to be ever more integrating these styles into something all their own.
The opening ‘Hive’ kicks off Steeped with a pure rush of energy. A crash, a piercing scream from Ward's clarinet, followed by an angular thrust from the rhythm section. They 'settle' into an effects laden solo from Sassi that is both shredding and textural. It becomes pretty clear that the group is not interested in recapping past achievements and are pushing themselves into new sonic territory.
The follow up 'Planetesimals' is another bruising show of force.Ward leads with crisp, clean, laser sharp lines while Sassi's metallic lines shimmer behind, and they are both pulled along by the dense undertow of Horro and Doulton. 'Stalks', track 3, seems to me like that perfect synthesis of melody and might. Sassi takes finger-twister of a solo above the swirling storm of fuzz bass and percussion that ends up tying itself into a compressed and distorted knot. Tucked into Ward's solo is a Miles Davis quote from - I believe 'Star People' - but delivered in pure Dark Magus fashion.
The following ‘Crest’ pulls them back together, starting with a heavy groove from the bass and drums, over which Ward lays a fraught theme. The band ramps up the tension up to a drum solo the leads them into a completely free zone that the group quietly explores. This long exploratory section leads us into the track 'Grains' which sports and intense composed theme, followed by a passage of counter-melodies between the guitar, clarinet, and bass that stretch the ear to its limits. The music continues, varying in the approach (like a solo clarinet passage where Ward employees a deft combination extended techniques) but with similar focus and muscle.
The tracks on Steeped were recorded at the venerable Vortex Jazz Club and Cafe Oto in 2014 and 2016 respectively, the sound is excellent and the energy captured has that special spark of a great gig.