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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Sloth Racket - Shapeshifters (Luminous Label, 2017) ****

By Lee Rice Epstein

I first encountered baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts when Julie Kjær interviewed her for a series on female improvisers in London, published at British Music Collection’s Sound and Music website. In it, Roberts mentioned her various groups, including the duo Ripsaw Catfish, her large ensemble work for Lancaster Jazz Festival, LUME project with saxophonist Dee Byrne, and of course her group Sloth Racket.

A semi-improvised quintet, Sloth Racket is Roberts’s main group, with Sam Andreae on tenor sax, Anton Hunter on guitar, Seth Bennett on bass, and Johnny Hunter on drums. Roberts creates what she calls “semi-graphic” scores for the band, which direct the group between composed material interlaced with long improvised sections. The result finds the group often headed in surprising directions, with composed themes emerging from hidden edges.

Bennett’s arco opens “Edges” with a sharpness that teases a rip-roaring kickoff which never quite arrives. Instead, Roberts and Andreae enter for a series of chamber-like episodes, and the group very gradually emerges in its full 5-part shape. “Tracking” finds A. Hunter, Bennett, and J. Hunter in a deep groove, with Andreae and Roberts playing off each other with smearing runs. Later in the track, a loping sax melody contrasts J. Hunter’s percussive improvisation. This stretch presents one of the clearest models of the group’s working dynamics, with composed stretches more transparently counterbalanced by solo and duo improvisations.

With “Bark,” Sloth Racket tips over into contemplative abstract territory, which works exceedingly well for a group that’s great at resisting the urge to overcook any one idea. The band simmers along, crafting a really nice tonal exploration, eventually exploding into the opening notes of “Shapeshifters.” Bennett’s a phenomenal bassist, and here, in a trio improvisation with Roberts and Andreae, he absolutely shines. After a lengthy bass solo, A. Hunter and J. Hunter join for a stellar trio improvisation. A. Hunter’s approach seems to take his guitar from idea to idea, rather than note to note, sometimes jumping from a picked line into an effects-drenched wash in a single move. Roberts and Andreae with a composed melody, phasing in and out of group improvisation before the whole unwinds back into more abstract territory.

At the heart of Sloth Racket seems to be something Roberts described in her interview with Kjær, “I see improvisation as instant (usually collaborative) important form of musical communication...and a group making totally improvised music can be like an egalitarian, non-hierarchical social organisation in miniature.” In the shared space of Shapeshifters, everyone has a place and a voice. And in the final stretch, with the band moving in unison along a partially charted route, you can hear this philosophy in all its glorious action.

Available at Bandcamp.

“Shapeshifters” Live at the Vortex, London, May 2016


Colin Green said...

A very good album. Well worth a listen.