As far as quartets go, Nick Fraser’s is a peculiar beast. With Fraser on drums, Rob Clutton on double bass, Tony Malaby on saxophone, and Andrew Downing on cello, it’s a configuration that many people likely haven’t heard before, and one that many probably didn’t even know they wanted to hear. Needless to say, it’s a unique set-up, one that requires (or possibly even forces) you to be open and receptive to new sounds. The quartet’s previous album is called Towns and Villages, and it bears witness to this requirement: over the course of twelve bold tracks, the group mapped out the possibilities available to them, landing on a sound that was fresh, idiosyncratic, and occasionally uncanny, with Downing’s cello acting as a link between the jazz and chamber music traditions - like Perelman’s Villa Lobos Suite of last year, the melodies occasionally carried hints of Bartók’s serrated set of string quartets. It’s not just the addition of another string instrument that makes this comparison apt, however; it’s the folksiness of the compositions themselves, the way they vacillate between simple, tuneful melodies and spikier, more serpentine sections.
Three years later, the group returns with a new album, one in which they often move their sound in decidedly different directions. Starer is undoubtedly a step forward, but it also houses some lateral movements, some oblique detours. Just listen to the opener, “Minimalism/416-538-7149,” and its repetitious, transfixing strings. As the title implies, it is a minimal exercise in restraint for cellist Downing and bassist Clutton, while simultaneously being something of a blank canvas for Fraser and Malaby. Fraser provides elastic, fluid rhythms that practically drip across the mesmerising back-drop, while Malaby’s soprano saxophone warbles (and occasionally screeches) its way through a series of a circular, knotty note-clusters.
The title track returns to the folksy melodicism of Towns and Villages, but imbues it with even more rousing piquancy. After the development of the initial theme by Malaby and Downing, the two (on tenor and cello, respectively) embrace each other in an ardent dance that gradually gets more wild and loose-limbed. Many of the tracks here are labelled as “sketches;” I wouldn’t say it’s because they are half-formed or skeletal, but more because of their spacious, uncluttered nature - like a drawing done in pencil of a landscape or city-scene, uncolored and scribbled impressionistically across the page, these pieces leave a lot to the audience’s imagination. In other words, they never give up too much of themselves, and it seems necessary that we, the listeners, invest a bit of our own energy into teasing out just what is going on. “Jupiter: Sketch #15” is indicative of this: over Fraser’s abstract drum-work, the other players move about with near-liquid ease, never quite settling down into a stable structure, but never going completely crazy either. Melodies occasionally pop up, or should I say the impressions of melodies: like smoke, they are quick to transform or dissipate entirely.
The longest piece here, a combination of “Sketch #20” and “Sketch #22,” progresses at an almost funereal pace, with the cello and soprano saxophone again moving in tandem. This time, however, they do not dance, but mourn. Midway through, the composition shifts, with the cello, bass, and saxophone all coming together to form a queasy vibrato. After that, Downing switches to pizzicato, Fraser clatters and taps with an increasing sense of agitated energy, and Malaby’s tenor appears. For the remainder of the piece (which I assume to be “Sketch #22”), the group does its best to replace the oppressive gloom established in the first half - not with outpourings of joy, but with frenzied convulsions.
The final composition, “Sketch #21,” is considerably calmer, again returning to a sound that quietly suggests Eastern European traditional music. The strength of Fraser’s compositions lies in their slipperiness; there is a constant sense of entropy here, of rhythms veering off into chaos and melodies collapsing in on themselves. It’s that push-and-pull (between order and disorder) that makes this such a vital and compelling listen.