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Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Offshoot - Charybdis (Bruce's Fingers, 2015) ****

By Derek Stone

The Offshoot is Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Sarah Gail Brand on trombone, Joe Morris on electric guitar, Simon H. Fell on double bass, and Steve Noble on drums. As you can tell, it’s something of a free jazz “supergroup,” so I was understandably excited to delve into the recording and see what this particular configuration of players had to offer. Charybdis was recorded at the Vortex on November 22nd, 2007 - the two pieces here are completely improvised, but there is an inherent logic, a tendency to glide between voices and modes with relative ease; it all fits together in a way that, at first, looks haphazard, but eventually reveals itself to have an internal structure not dissimilar to an old-fashioned clock - tiny components all working together to execute a single function.

First of all, a brief lesson in mythology. “Charybdis” was a large seamonster with an unquenchable thirst for water - thus, she consumed the ocean-water three times a day, forming whirlpools and causing the demise of uncountable sailors and their ships. The Offshoot do indeed possess a sound imbued with enormous force and power. On the other hand, they are not lacking in subtlety - there are spots of tranquility here, delicate threads there, and throughout all of it, a cool mastery of the pieces’ organization and flow.

The first piece, “Usclatx,” opens in a somewhat meandering fashion, with Tim Berne acting as the “primary mover,” so to speak. He weaves his complex alto lines through the piece, providing the serpentine needlework that gives it its initial shape. Within a few minutes, the other players pick up the pace, particularly guitarist Morris, bassist Fell, and drummer Noble. For anyone who has heard Morris in an improvisational setting, his playing here won’t come as a huge shock: clean, pointillistic scales that sound like tightly-wound balls of string coming undone. After brief solos by Berne and Morris, the piece moves into more amorphous territory - trombonist Brand provides brassy bursts that drip like molten wax, Morris offers distorted rumbles, and Berne toys with the altissimo register. Noble is constrained, sweeping the cymbals and supplying textures that rattle patiently beneath the abstract wanderings of the other players. In many ways, “Usclatx” swells and recedes in a distinctly wave-like fashion: Noble’s percussion rumbles, then pounds, Fell unexpectedly goes into runs on his double bass, the volume increases, the tempo picks up - and then it all recedes again. These oceanic pulses give the piece a feeling of animation, like an organic mass that expands and contracts with each breath.

“Blubberhouses” starts off with roiling perturbations from all the players, Berne again going on convoluted runs, Morris racing alongside him, and Noble laying out sibilant billows with the cymbals. After five minutes or so, most of the players withdraw, and Noble takes some time to play with all of the percussive tools at his disposal. As he establishes an atmosphere of tense expectation, the others contribute with near-imperceptible splashes of sound that gradually pool together. As in the previous piece, the tempo starts to escalate, and the players go from producing sparse droplets to unleashing veritable cascades of sound. Soon, the cascades diminish, the trickle stops, and the piece comes to a close.

In my opinion, this performance by the Offshoot was an incredibly fruitful one, and the recording produced is a fine example of what five musicians can accomplish in an improvisational setting - while the players all work together in a unified fashion, they never lose their idiosyncratic voices, and that is one of the most recognize hallmarks of a free-jazz session gone right.