Even without direct line drawn by the opening track, a rousing cover of Jerome Cooper’s “For the People,” the new album from Alexander Hawkins inspires associations with the heyday of 1970s free and avant-garde jazz. Unit[e] is a broad-ranging album, a showcase for two sides of Hawkins’s music, with groups of varying sizes: his sextet, recorded in fall of 2016; and a new ensemble with 13 players, recorded in early 2017. Among the albums that came to mind is the classic Ornette Coleman album In All Languages (more on Ornette in a minute). Hawkins highlights different aspects of his musical interests through the two groups, weaving common threads of freedom, collaboration, and, yes, unity. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say this is a free-jazz masterpiece. In all ways, it deserves its place alongside Coleman’s In All Languages, one of my personal favorites and easily one of the best of all time (heck, Robert Christgau loved Coleman’s album enough to review it for both Village Voice and Playboy).
The first disc has Hawkins with his stellar sextet: Dylan Bates on violin, Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet and tenor saxophone, Otto Fischer on electric guitar, Neil Charles on double bass, and Tom Skinner on drums. Following their Cooper cover, Hawkins, Fischer, Charles, and Skinner launch into “[C]all (Part 1),” a really excellent take on Ornette’s harmolodics. Hutchings solos on tenor, with all the richness of Dewey Redman. Skinner holds down the rhythm ably, dropping in the occasional funk fill but otherwise channeling Denardo Coleman expertly. When the band reprises “[C]all” later on the album, Skinner drives a bit harder, he and Hutchings pairing up for a pulsing, choppy run. These small amoebic-style cells of players, clustering in 2s and 3s during open improvisation, is often a grounding force in group performances. With Hawkins, however, these clusters tend to feel slightly more organic than structured, and I get the sense (although I don’t know for certain) that a good part of him bringing players together is getting them to harmonize, not musically but emotionally. Take the middle section of the set: “[K]now,” a graceful mid-tempo track with spoken word from Fischer, occasionally spotlights Hutchings on bass clarinet, either unaccompanied or barely accompanied. This is followed by “[W]here,” which opens with a patient duet from Bates and Charles, and features a lengthy solo from Fischer. Throughout both tracks, Hawkins and Skinner seem to float in, around, and through the others, sometimes merging lines, sometimes clashing, yet always reinforcing deep connections that keep the music in flux. It’s a balance that requires tons of effort, especially in a sextet. Naturally, expanding to a large ensemble raises the stakes considerably.
Last summer, Spike Orchestra’s Sam Eastmond kicked off a thread on Facebook asking for recommendations for large-ensemble recordings, and Hawkins’s replies give some sense of the thought process behind part two of Unit[e]. In his flood of recommendations, there are a few key signposts: Sam Rivers (Hawkins mentioned Winds of Manhattan, but I’d also point listeners to Culmination and Inspiration); Muhal Richard Abrams; and Horace Tapscott’s albums with his Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra. Although there is a distinct Rivbea Orchestra vibe, I found the Abrams and Tapscott influences particularly strong. The freely organized ensemble utterly transforms Hawkins’s music in their bold, lively performance.
The lineup is filled with familiar names, starting with Bates, Fischer, and Charles returning: James Arben on flute, tenor saxophone, and bass clarinet; Julie Kjær on flute, alto flute, alto saxophone, and bass clarinet; Alex Ward on clarinet; Nick Malcolm on trumpet and flugelhorn; Laura Jurd on trumpet; Hannah Marshall on cello; Percy Pursglove on trumpet and double bass; Matthew Wright on live electronics; and Stephen Davis on drums and percussion. The music overall isn’t quite as piano-forward as a Tapscott record, but Hawkins does employ a similar brassy swing to great effect, such as the first part of “See[k] > Hear[t].” During the transition into “Hear[t],” we get some cat-and-mouse style interplay from Arben and Kjær, before the band drops out and Wright gets an extended solo spotlight. On the title track, “Unit[e],” the group opens with a chamber-like fugue that gradually, almost imperceptibly, morphs into fantastic group improvisation. Arben, Kjær, Bates, and Hawkins interweave their solos, as Marshall, Charles, and Davis keep the group spinning forward to Wright’s brief coda.
Both sets are incredible, musically speaking. New ideas seem to sprout every few moments, whole songs go in unexpected directions. But perhaps one of the things that doesn’t get said enough is how fun improvised music can be, and often is. On every Hawkins record, and in many of the video clips I’ve seen of him, he has such a lively and infectious energy. And with these groups, he’s found simpatico players, who not only shine, they sparkle.