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Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Diagonal (Jeff Parker/Jeb Bishop/Pandelis Karayorgis/Nate McBride/Luther Gray) Filter (Not Two, 2018) ****

By Nick Metzger

The Diagonal is a recently formed group consisting of Jeff Parker on guitar, Pandelis Karayorgis on keys, Nate McBride on bass, Luther Gray on drums, and Jeb Bishop on trombone. This quintet of exciting and celebrated musicians converged on the Boston area and produced an excellent set of melodic free jazz for this release on Not Two. The ever-prolific Jeff Parker had another big year in 2018, adding his touch to records by Makaya McCraven , Armen Nalbandian, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Anthony Shadduck. His playing here is warm and prickly, exuding the confident aura of an artist in his prime. The Greek pianist Pandelis Karayorgis likewise had a busy 2018, bookending this release with a pair of trio records on Driff Records , one of which includes the rhythm section of McBride and Gray. McBride, in addition to this record and the trio with Karayorgis and Gray, played on the outstanding Eugene Chadbourne disc “Let's Get Weird but Comfortable” with Jorrit Dijkstra, Curt Newton, and Jeb Bishop. The prolific drummer Luther Gray, a member of Bathysphere and Lawnmower, has played extensively with Joe Morris, Dave Rempis, and Ken Vandermark and provides the rhythmic backbone for this release. And finally, trombonist Jeb Bishop who always seems to be in more releases than I keep up with, had a most productive 2018 appearing on releases by Polyorchard, Eugene Chadbourne, Mars Williams, and the Chicago Edge Ensemble, as well as issuing his first solo trombone album, the wonderfully inventive Three Valentines and Goodbye.

“Four in the Evening (Intro)” provides an airy start to the record, finding Parker's guitar drone joined with stretched tones from Bishop and rumbling bass and cymbal chatter from McBride and Gray. Karayorgis adds a warm ambience with his Rhodes that the group begins to coagulate around before the piece suddenly fades out. The next track “Carrier” provides a step-change in energy starting with Parker's overdriven intro. The scene switches to solos from Karayorgis and Bishop as Parker scrapes out wild guitar textures that lend some intensity and a dynamic twist to the solos. Gray is a tremendous drummer and he particularly shines here, lending a powerful sense of momentum to the piece. The song then devolves into Parker's noisey skree momentarily before the group again reprises the opening theme. This is followed with the call and response interplay that introduces “Later That Evening”. McBride and Gray play a straightforward walking rhythm over which Karayorgis and Parker consecutively lay down concise, angular solos. There is a particularly nice albeit brief duet between McBride and Bishop towards the end of the song, which concludes with a reprise of the intro melody. “Never Had a Star” is a disquieting piece of low key jazz where Parker and Bishop play around and through each other, their lines tangling into aural knots before dissolving. Karayorgis adds a feeling of uncertainty with his delayed, pointillistic Rhodes technique. McBride and Gray merely highlight a structure for the group to play over that remains more of a suggestion than anything that swings. “Freakadelic” is built off a truly funky electric bass vamp that evolves as the song progresses. Bishop underpins the entire first half of the song, providing growling, honking lines that are accented by Karayorgis’ moody Rhodes stabs. Parker and Karayorgis then solo consecutively, piling on funky licks and doubling McBrides bass line at times all to good effect.

“LA Visitor” features a walking 4/4 rhythm, over which the theme is stated on piano and trombone. Parker and Karayorgis’ then solo together, sounding superimposed, as they accent and contrast each other effectively throughout. The piece closes with a similar style solo from Bishop and Karayorgis. “FOC” utilizes an intensely laid back and lyrical approach (most of the album does, but I think it peaks here), with a slight post-bop vibe. There's a subtle swing that underpins all of the solos, with Parker's being particularly excellent here. The swing continues with “Unsquozen”, though ratcheted up a notch. Karayorgis plays his most assertive and forceful solo on this piece, followed by Bishop and Parker. Bishop's playing is almost scat-like while Parker's is subtle and muted before dropping out for an extended solo from Gray. On “Wild Turkey Scratch” Parker finds his overdrive pedal again, doubling lines with Bishop and Karayorgis on this dynamic piece. Similar to “Carrier” Parker adds bits of skronky guitar texture in as Bishop and Karayorgis solo. This induces a sense of urgency in the music, and yields perhaps the freest sounding piece on the record. About halfway through McBride also finds his OD pedal, imparting a plodding, scuzzy rhythm for Parker to unleash his guitar pyrotechnics. The closer “Four in the Evening (Full)” is slow to start, with washes of cymbal, bass, and Rhodes before the guitar comes in with warm chords and staccato runs. Bishop growls to life over the second half of the piece, playing a bluesy, breathy accompaniment to close out the album.

This is a very well built album that will find favor with fans of these musicians. If I can find a fault with the album it's only that it comes off as a little formulaic. It sounded exactly as I expected it would given the personnel involved, and I found the sequencing to lack a bit in the middle of the album where the overall laid-backness borders on tedium at times. This could possibly have been remedied with the inclusion of another burner like “Carrier” or “Wild Turkey Scratch” near the midpoint. Also noteworthy is that the compositions and arrangements were provided by all members, which may add to the overall homogeneity of the album's mid-section considering their similar playing styles. I loved the aforementioned 'burners’ and the almost-ambient-jazz of the “Four in the Evening” tracks. “Freakadelic” is also a standout and may have been intended to be that lively middle track; it just wasn't highly peppered enough in my opinion. Overall this is a great record from a quintet of absolutely superb players.