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Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Zack Clarke — Random Acts of Order (Clean Feed, 2017) ****1/2

By Rick Joines

The first five minutes of Zack Clarke’s Random Acts of Order is bubbling layers of noise accompanied by the occasional sawing arco of an upright bass. Static, warbles, the rumbling of boiler room pistons, bad weather blowing in, fog horns, sparky digital artefacts unhinged in the matrix, blaring waves of jets shredding the sky, swooping sci-fi soundtrack warps—the ear wants to find meaning in the stacked chaos of sound—and before all this turns, almost, into white noise, one gets a sense of vast, ceilinged, space, perhaps like a large airport—intercom voices and indistinct, probably vital, announcements sounding somewhere beyond one’s discernment, or maybe beneath one’s level of attention. This is a thoroughly synthetic, manufactured modern din. Then around the 5-minute mark, there is a click of drum sticks, some brushed cymbals, the arco of the bass settles down, and a slightly altered piano dissonantly tinkles into the mix. Sustained and descending chords fall into one another yet fail to resolve.

This first track is titled “Before the Cause,” as in quantum physics, when an effect appears to precede its cause. If the effect is random noise, its precedent cause is what: order? What is the causal relation between the soft, sparse, somnolent improvisation of the last seven minutes to the noise of the first five? What’s the difference, finally, between the accidental and the intentional, between the random and the rational, between the accumulation of industrial noise and the intention to compose beautiful noise? Nothing, perhaps. Maybe everything.

After hearing only the first track, one is bound to ask: What sort of record is this? I’m not sure, in the end, if the genre is important—noise, electronica, free jazz, post-bop, avant-garde. What is important is that it’s good, so good I find myself, at times, shuddering in a sort of awe, as if I should get unshod and avert my mortal eyes. Part of this effect comes from the album’s production. It is recorded and mixed beautifully: drums, piano, and bass float together in perfect balance, each distinctly—marvelously—engaging one’s undivided attention. If I were a musician, I’d find my way to Systems Two Recording Studios in Brooklyn, call in Billy Drewes from NYU to produce, and nomad engineer Rich Lamb to record. Then I’d send it all over to Bass Hit Studios, hoping David Darlington would mix and master. Part of the greatness of this record surely belongs to their efforts. Of course, they have the playing of some incredible young talent. As Joe Morris writes in the liner notes, these twenty-somethings (each one his former student) have incredibly mature hands, minds, and ears. “This music,” Morris writes, unfolds as a landscape with many points of view, or as a series of narratives, and as a set of tableaus.” It demands and rewards careful listening and reflection. It is easy, he says, to get “lost in the sound of each instrument.”

The interplay between the trio is euphoric, aggressive. This group respects tradition but they’re not afraid to burn it down. They can play sweet as a gang of harpists, then buzz, furious as bees. Henry Fraser, on bass, rips it up and utterly tears it down. He walks a growling beast of a bass line on a tight tether that threatens to snap on any beat; his arco can slice then soothe in rapid succession, breaking your heart, then ferociously strafing your ears. Dré Hočevar, on drums, is a dervish of crashing, splashing, and hard-ridden cymbals. He can snap a snare with military precision or brush it with tender affection. And then there’s bandleader and composer Zack Clarke. He plays piano like he’s come unstuck in jazz time. Even when his playing—song-to-song, and sometimes measure-to measure—can conjure great moments in the history of jazz, he always sounds unique, decisive, playful, and intense. He shows you, old man, he can play and can teach you a thing or two.

There are a couple of tracks that reprise the gurgling, water droplet noises of “Before the Cause”: “Elements” and “Celebrate Unity.” These may serve an intellectual function that relates to the album’s title—other moments where order appears at random, and though I’m not sure I can make sense of them, or enjoy them as much as the rest, they work well in the tapestry these three weave. If the tracks “Act 1” and “Up on the High” lavishly display the virtuosic strengths and playful inventiveness of the trio, “Act 2” is the show stopper: perfectly mixed; perfectly played—it reminds you of everything you’ve ever loved about jazz and free jazz, yet reveals that, buddy, that you don’t know Zack.

Available from Clean Feed Records (album preview on the Spotify player)

Zack Clarke:
Henry Fraser:
Dré Hočevar:


Connor said...

Thanks for the review. This sounds great, potentially reminiscent of Dre Hocevar's own Clean Feed albums which I adore (in which Zack Clarke actually plays synth).
I look forward to hearing it!