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Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Turbine! – Entropy/Enthalpy (RogueArt, 2015) ****

Drawn from the network of nearly 80 French and American musicians known as The Bridge, The Turbine! is a unique quartet, all rhythm section—to use convention as a point of reference, not reverence. The group brings drummer Hamid Drake and bassist Harrison Bankhead together with drummer Ramon Lopez and bassist Benjamin Duboc. Given the members’ pedigrees, as well as their chosen name (and punctuation!), we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the music on Entropy/Enthalpy, a two-disc document of their 2014 French tour, is full of concentrated energy and power. Far from mechanical, there is something—perhaps many things—machine-like about the collective playing here. Each track is credited to the entire group, reflecting a perfect union of parts where the failure of one component would shut the whole thing down. And the doubling of the traditionally supportive instruments creates, to a degree, an environment of relative anonymity in which I, at least, despite some educated speculation, can’t always be sure which bassist or drummer is playing what. The effect is to subsume individual personalities under a common identity and allow listeners to sharpen their focus on the sounds themselves. But I’d rather not expose an embarrassing scientific illiteracy by trying to indulge the “turbine” metaphor in any more detail—though the track titles invite it. So let’s jump straight in.

Starting with “Rotor/Stator,” the first disc’s eight tracks demonstrate the technical and stylistic range of this transatlantic set-up—from high-tension bowing to soulful fingered lines by Bankhead and Duboc, from freeform full-kit bombast to syncopated hand drum patterns by Drake and Lopez. On the opener the group take time to ease in and explore before finding balance on a seams-bursting and subtly shifting percussive through-line. By the third piece, “Electric Network,” the quartet is really cooking: during the infectious hand drum and brush groove that starts things off you can hear somebody say, “Whoa!” and “Yeah, baby!” Soon there’s more singing (and laughter) as a call and response picks up between sliding bass notes and vocals. Things turn from playful to plaintive, though, with “Steaming,” the stunning follow-up. Here we find Drake summoning resonant tones from his frame drum, while the basses bow and pluck out gorgeously tender repeating melodic phrases. While every piece showcases superb drumming and bass playing, of course, of special note to drummers will be “Natural Energy,” near the end of the first disc, a seven-minute percussion duet. While Drake and Lopez resist the temptation to engage in an old-fashioned back-and-forth drum battle, they do pay homage to tradition by falling into Max Roach’s “The Drum Also Waltzes” halfway through.

Disc two introduces several special guests to the Turbine! quartet, starting with French trumpeter Jean-Luc Cappozzo. On the twenty-minute “Electrical Coil,” Cappozzo layers his clear, deliberate phrases over an ongoing bass duet. Later, when the piece has developed into driving funk he offers another nod to the past, taking a cue from one of the bassists to cite the “Milestones” theme. William Parker adds yet another double bass to the group on the brooding “Relief Valves” and “500 Megawatts,” featuring some nice arco/vocal unisons. The closing track, “Free Power,” is a marathon twenty-eight minute improvisation that shows alto saxophonist Lionel Garcin completely at home with The Turbine! From dark, slowly developing lines as the group gathers energy to agile, rhythmic blowing over the drummers’ funky groove a quarter of an hour later, Garcin’s telepathic interplay with the quartet is a highlight—only the last of many—of Entropy/Enthalpy.