It is unfair for sax trios to always be combined in a single review, but we get so many albums with sax trios that you wouldn't believe it. We'll point you in the direction of the most interesting ones.
Agustí Martínez, Eduard Altaba, Quicu Samsó - Phantom Wall Syndrome (Discordian, 2014) ****
The next track shatters the calm of the introduction with some violent powerplay, with the title, "Das Schwarzkommando" being a reference to Tomas Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow" (read it!).
"Isle de Sable" is a slow bass-driven piece full of melancholy and beautiful bass clarinet with Samsó's drumming again as efficient as it is effective. "Macunamia" inspired - I think - by a novel by the Brazilian author Mário de Andrade, continues in the same vein, with drums and bass setting an eery scene of anticipation for the bass clarinet to join to the end with sparse vibrating tones.
"Farfelu" is uptempo and boppish in nature, but then it gets deconstructed to areas of distress and unpleasant tension. "Wariri or Arnewi" a title referring to Saul Bellow's "Henderson The Rain King", and the last track "I Am Inclin'd to Think That Dougherty Island Has Melted" is again slow and dark and raw.
A very coherent album, performed by three musicians who share the same vision and deliver it well.
You can listen and download from Bandcamp.
Gonçalo Almeida, John Dikeman & George Hadow - O Monstro (Creative Sources, 2014) ****
Things are of a different nature with this trio consisting of Gonçalo Almeida on bass, John Dikeman on sax and George Hadow on drums, three musicians who happen to be based in the Netherlands. As the title suggests, this is a monster of a trio, ferocious, raw, wild, fierce and sufficiently clever and creative to keep the interest going, including the wonderful shift at the end of the first track.
The second piece starts with a long bowed bass intro, and when the two youngsters join, the energy picks up again for some fantastic interplay, one in which all three musicians play an equal role.
And then it's hard to describe why this is good, why this is so much better than the average, because you have to hear it. The heat that drives these musicians, the phenomenal skills that avoid automatisms, the discipline to listen to each other, the inventiveness in the moment, the focus to stay in the same tune while feeling as free as a bird, a monster of a bird in this case, and if you're a fan of free jazz, you shouldn't miss this one.
Lucien Johnson (°1981), hailing from Wellington, New Zealand, is probably the lesser known of the three members of this band, he spent some years in Paris at the end of last decade, the period during which he recorded this beautiful performance with Alan Silva (°1939) on double bass, and Makoto Sato (°1946) on drums, two veterans of the free jazz scene. Even if the rhythm section is twice the age of the frontman, he does not seem to be inhibited too much by it, and plays his role really well, at the same time offering lots of space to Silva and Sato. Johnson's tone on tenor is warm and round, and his playing offers a perfect balance between nervous energy, soulful howling and rhythmic phrases, in a sense that has almost become unusual in Europe's free improv scene, without abstractions, over-blowing or extended techniques. The trio's playing is not ground-breaking or innovative, yet highly enjoyable.
Watch a one hour performance by the trio here, with an impromptu appearance of Itaru Oki on trumpet near the end.
Olie Brice, Tobias Delius & Mark Sanders - Somersaults (Two Rivers, 2015) ****½
This trio is offers a great album full of relentless nervous tension, not only because of saxophonist Tobias Delius short and agitated phrases, full of colorful side-steps, squeeks and howls, but also because of intensity of Olie Brice on bass and Mark Sanders on drums. Their playing is far from exuberant, quite the contrary even, staying close to the main idea, focused on the core concept, but then exploring and amplifying the minute, giving details room for expansion, adding touches to encourage the dialogue that does not seem to develop but rather to wrestle with itself, with muscle power and force, yet without moving.
Without losing any of the intensity, the second track, "Bones Shake Like Sticks", is slower, more open-ended and in my opinion also stronger because of the phenomenal interplay between the three artists to create an eery atmosphere of unfulfilled desire. The half-hour long last track is called "Like A Creature Let Loose In A Room", starts with some faux-bop sentiments of bass and drums, yet the intro collapses into some in-the-moment granular blasts and bursts, full of hard hitting surprises totally without rhythm and structure, yet with a great sense of pulse, pace and fabulous group dynamics. This is European free improv at its best.
Ab Baars Trio - Slate Blue (Wig, 2015) ****
Like Tobas Delius, Dutch saxophonist and clarinettist Ab Baars is also a member of the Dutch ICP Orchestra. On this album he plays in a trio with Wilbert de Joode on bass, and Martin van Duynhoven on drums, a band which has been performing and releasing albums since the early nineties. The ten improvised pieces are all relatively short, and in a way they offer a kind of poetic compactness to the music, which is forced to circle around a core atmosphere or concept, often inspired by nature, without straying too much, without real development, yet with some deepening of the idea, adding light touches and surprising changes.
The entire approach is light-hearted, gentle and free, a beautiful combination of lyricism, precision and tonal coloring.
Paul Rogers, Robin Fincker & Fabien Duscombs - Whahay (Mr Morezon, 2014) ***½
Now this is an unexpected album, led by famous British bassist Paul Rogers, and with Robin Fincker on clarinet and sax, and Fabien Duscombs on drums, both from France. With the album Rogers wants to bring a tribute to Charles Mingus, yet with the little fun of transposing the well-known Mingus tunes into a more up-to-date free improv environment. The Mingus compositions played here are : Better Git It In Your Soul, Ecclusiastics, Jump Monk, Canon, Pithecanthropus Erectus, Reincarnation of a Lovebird, Bird Call, Work Song, and Goodbye Pork Pie Hat, and it is great fun to hear these tunes in a totally different musical context, and I'm also wondering what Mingus himself might have thought of this, wary as he was of free jazz and free improvisation ("if the free-form guys could play the same tune twice, then I would say they were playing something . . . . Most of the time they use their fingers on the saxophone and they don't even know what's going to come out").
The trio proves him wrong, because this is great fun, and true, they may not be able to play it exactly the same twice, but I'm sure Mingus would have appreciated the band's authenticity, their musical prowess and their personal vision on the master's tunes. Rogers plays a determining role on the record, driving the trio forward and giving some wonderful soloing, yet both Fincker and Duscombs were an excellent choice as bandmates for this project. Great fun!
Judge for yourselves :
Travis Laplante, Trevor Dunn & Ches Smith - Ancestral Instrument (NNA Tapes, 2014) ***½
For Laplante this was his first performance in a fully improvised setting. The music was recorded at the IBEAM in Brooklyn during a snowstorm in front of a literally very 'captive audience'. The only agreement among the musicians was that "the sound should be followed", as vague a concept as one could create.
The long first track starts very slowly, with the long and stretched notes of the sax circling around a tonal center, with bass and drums creating a mesmerising foundation, and slowly shifting colors and timbres, all well-paced and well-measured. The second track is a little more ferocious, with Laplante screaming and howling, yet also leaving sufficient space for bass (arco) and drums to add to the overall sound, which slowly evolves into more sensitive playing and resulting in an emotional ending.
Giovanni Maier, Daniele D'Agaro & Zlatko Kaucic - Disorder At The Border (Palomar, 2015) ****
For those who are interested in how free improvisation can lead to a huge variety of tunes should listen to this album. Slovenian master drummer Zlatko Kaucic plays in his home country at a jazz festival (recorded end 2013) in the presence of Giovanni Maier, an Italian bassists whose skills I've praised before and Daniele D'Agoro on reeds, who played with the Mitteleuropa Ensemble before, but also with musicians such as von Schlippenbach, Bennink, Bishop, Delius, . Maier hails from the north east of Italy, not too far from the border with Slovenia, and I assume the album's title refers to this.
The first track is a real power-tune, with all three musicians playing up a storm, tight and focused and fierce, shifting gears completely for the next piece, which is quiet, subtle and subdued and intense at the same time, a great moment for all three musicians to let us enjoy the pure quality of the sound of their instruments, clarinet, pizzi bass and refined percussion, growing in volume and force near the end.
They can also move into more playful moods such as on the fourth piece, or some telepathic interplay as on the fifth, with sudden pauses and simultaneous continuation. They sing, they dance, they play around like kids, they seem to enjoy their pyrotechnics and acrobatics, and so does this listener, but they go deeper than this, adding some great emotional or even spiritual content at times.
Mike Noordzy, David Freeman & Daniel Carter - The Imaginary Quartet (Nacht, 2014) ***½
There is nothing wrong with that approach of course, as long as the music sounds great. And it does. "Modern Museum", the long first track is an uptempo high energy piece with Carter's saxes playing in the front and in the distance, with the occasional industrial noise mixed in to increase the uncanny sound of the piece, which reorients itself to a midtempo pulse with Carter switching to flute, joined again by himself on muted trumpet somewhere in the background, while Freeman and Noordzy keep the rhythm going in an inventive way. The second track, "Boating With John", manipulates the sounds into a kind of mix of lounge and noise, weird yet accessible, and quite compelling actually. Other pieces, such as "Reminds Me Of Billy", are quieter, more spontaneously jazzy, yet always with this kind of strange alteration of the basic forms, deconstructing the walking bass into more fragmented and counter-intuitive rhythms.
It's an interesting approach, quite welcoming even if not ground-breaking.
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Gianni Gebbia Magnetic Trio - Prospero (Objet-A, 2014) ***½
He is joined by Gabrio Bevilacqua on doubble bass and Carmelo Graceffa on drums. Because of the composed themes and the clear structure of the different pieces, the album is also a little out of scope of this review list, but then again, this is also far from mainstream and because of its quality, something worth recommending. The most beautiful theme of the entire album is "Francesco e Il Sultano", which was written for puppet theatre.
On "Never Been So Well", Laura Campisi joins for a vocal piece, almost musical-like. Like many of Gebbia's albums, there are plenty of ideas, excellent compositions, even if the overall coherence of all these compositions is somewhat lacking. But then again, if this album does not cheer you up, few things can.
Listen and download from Bandcamp.
Call it doomjazz, or dark jazz, or whatever moniker fits the sound, but this is not free jazz at all, yet at the same time, it's such great fun to listen to, that we can recommend it. Even if heavily composed, the raw and relentless energy of the trio, together with the inventiveness, and their great match between jazz and heavy metal (or is it grindcore, fast metal or metalcore?), makes this really worth listening to. And I guess they must even be better in a live setting.
Jan Klare, Luc Ex, Michael Vatcher - RKeT (Skycap, 2014) ***
Even if not every piece is of the same level, listeners looking for fiercer excursions will have some good listening moments with this album.