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Thursday, September 27, 2018

Spring Heel Jack and Wadada Leo Smith with Pat Thomas and Steve Noble - Hackney Road (Treader, 2018) ****½

By Keith Prosk

Facilitated by Thirsty Ear’s Matthew Shipp-directed Blue Series, Spring Heel Jack (John Coxon and Ashley Wales) transformed from a drum n bass duo to free improvisers in the early ‘00s and, together with the premier performers the series paired them with, produced some of the best recordings of the decade in Live, The Sweetness of the Water, and Songs & Themes. In 2004, Coxon established the Treader label, which serves as a platform for continued collaboration among the players on the Thirsty Ear recordings with some notable additions in the way of Alex Ward, Eddie Prevost, Pat Thomas, and others. The label maintains a steady output of three releases per year but has had quiet spells during 2010-2012 and 2016-2017, so this year’s three releases are welcome and include a reissue of Alexis Taylor’s Rubbed Out, a reissue of Evan Parker’s (previously incredibly difficult to find) Evan Parker with Birds, and the new material of Hackney Road.

The album is forty odd minutes across six discrete tracks, labeled “Scene I-VI,” but flows as well as if it was one set despite being recorded across eight months in 2016. Coxon (on electric guitar, pedal steel guitar, National Trojan, kalimba, harmonica, piano, percussion, and samples), Wales (on samples, loops, electronics, and percussion), and Thomas (on piano, synthesizer, and theremin) frequently take the role of creating an environment or setting that facilitates and interplays with the dialogue or monologues of Smith (trumpet) and Noble (drums, percussion). Like Spring Heel Jack’s last two Thirsty Ear recordings, these are highly edited, highly emotive, atmospheric pieces that develop highly cinematic passages: In “Scene II,” Wales loops a violin sample under Noble’s shimmering cymbals and Coxon’s lazy, twangy, bent notes while Smith soulfully solos, with the whole scene recalling “Dereks” from Songs & Themes; or, in “Scene VI,” a multi-layered drone syncs with a piano’s broken lullaby from Thomas while Smith plays a mournful tune, reminiscent of “Track One” from The Sweetness of the Water.

But this record is not a copy of previous efforts, though fans of the last two Thirsty Ear recordings will find a fix of similar quality. I don’t feel as if I’m getting tired of this sound. It doesn’t have the immediacy of the unedited Live, Live In Antwerp, Trio with Interludes, or Acoustic Trio, but is a distilled version of the Spring Heel Jack sound and much more dramatic for it.

Hackney Road is an LP-only release.