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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Nate Wooley, Hugo Antunes & Chris Corsano - Malus (NoBusiness, 2014) ****

By Matthew Grigg

"There are three reasons to walk into a minefield: ignorance that it exists, being naïve about the dangers therein, or curiosity about its true destructive potential. Ignorance and naiveté are essential parts of the third, curious reason. But, if you can find a way to limit their presence, that reckless curiosity can take you, and everyone around you, a long way toward a greater understanding."

So begins the 8th issue of Sound American (edited by Nate Wooley), in which he posed the question 'What is Jazz?' to over 30 musicians, each of whom have a musical relationship to Jazz. Two specific questions were asked; "What one thing HAS to be present (musically, socially, historically, whatever), in your mind, to constitute “Jazz”?" and, "Thinking in the same broad terms, what one thing CANNOT be present in “Jazz”?" The varied responses are worth reading in full, and whilst little in the way of consensus was reached regarding the second question, themajority of responses to the first said "some sort of improvisation. The way people chose to define improvisation varied…Certain ideas around rhythm, whether “swing” or a more abstract concept, were mentioned…as well".

The debate surrounding these questions was fresh in my mind as I approached 'Malus', which reprises three of the quintet found on last year's 'Posh Scorch'. Considered from this perspective, the LP almost reads as an allegory to the changing nature of the post 'bop Jazz landscape; opening with a composed tune which follows a head-solos-head structure, followed by a more obtuse but still traditionally dialectic piece, through increasing levels of abstraction into more textural freely improvised areas, before (d)evolving into noisy amplified squall. Finally, as if burnt out from the strain of its own forward momentum, it restates the approach of the initial piece like some Marsalis helmed/Crouch endorsed revisionism.

Shorn of the additional horn & Fender Rhodes of Posh Scorch, the overall sound is relatively spare with each player afforded plenty of space within the music. Corsano shines in smaller group settings (as those hipped to his duo with Joe McPhee will already be well aware), the increased headroom highlighting the subtleties in his fizzing polyrhythms and breadth of articulation in his kit's extended palette. In the more traditionally musical moments, Wooley's lines carry melody or punctuate with keening cries. At its most splintered, his rasps and smears add texture and rhythm in the pockets around the percussion, eliciting sounds which explore the furthest reaches of the horn's potential. Arguably, under-recorded Antunes makes the most productive use of the diffuse nature of the music. Afforded the first solo of the first side, the bass is never far from centre stage. Engaging and unconventionally melodic runs provide a sense of consonance as the music abstracts, his thoughtfully chosen phrasing underpins the music at its most full and galvanises at its most disparate.

Given the extremes Wooley has visited investigating the potential of amplified trumpet (see High Society with Peter Evans), the droning textures found on his previous trio date with Corsano (the second instalment of his ongoing Seven Story Mountain project), and Corsano's own regular associations with the more feral end of the musical spectrum, it is surprising just how straight the pieces which bookend this release feel, but it doesn't take long before more fractured, grittier approaches start to dominate. A considered use of space and empathetic interaction is apparent throughout, and lends a sense of skilfully negotiated poise to the set. Even at its most dissonant moments, measured restraint guides the trio from ever committing fully to the (sonic or rhythmic) fray, and ensures that the 'curiosity' here is never truly 'reckless'.

There are elements fundamental to this record which, to some, cannot be present for this music to be thought of as Jazz, but the foundations of 'improvisation' and 'ideas around rhythm', agreed upon by most Sound American contributors, are apparent throughout. So, if this is to be considered 'Jazz', then it serves to re-ask the question 'What is Jazz?'. Louis Armstrong's answer to which is still as pertinent today as when he gave it decades ago, "Man, if you have to ask you'll never know."

The LP is available from Instantjazz., and excerpts from the opening & closing tracks can be listened to here