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Tuesday, June 22, 2021

أحمد [Ahmed] - Nights on Saturn (Communication) (Astral Spirits, 2021) *****

By Lee Rice Epstein

Beginning about 7 years ago, pianist Pat Thomas, bassist Joel Grip, and drummer Antonin Gerbal began playing and recording together as اسم [Ism], a name that represents something of a state of being that the group transforms into a richly layered, complex mix of forms and gestures. While the trio continues to explore new concepts—furthering the language of conventional Western concepts of a quote-unquote traditional jazz piano trio—shortly after this first album, they added altoist Seymour Wright and formed the flawless jazz quartet أحمد [Ahmed]. And, make no mistake, every single album they’ve recorded has been absolutely flawless, some of the highest high-wire group improvisation, with a tension and drama that I can barely imagine experiencing live. Lucky for us, the first two albums, and now their third, present أحمد recorded live, first in 2016, then 2018, and on the recent Nights on Saturn (Communication) in 2019, at Café OTO in London.

I first heard Grip when we ran an interview with him and reviewed the first Neuköllner Modelle album (I loved that one so much, I jumped to review their second album .) His playing is insistent without being pushy, energetic and urging, when paired with Gerbal’s surprisingly swinging, frenetic style. The opening of “Nights on Saturn (Communication)” has Gerbal laying down a funky shuffle, right before Wright and Thomas jump in with… but actually, none of it is what you think. In any other context, this quartet would be at the top of any list, the underpinnings of their collective movements are that strong. But, go crate digging and drop a needle (or press play) on “Nights on Saturn” from 1961’s The Music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik or “Communication” from 1962’s Sounds of Africa (or, you can hear both on the 2003 reissue Jazz Sounds of Africa, although why they went with that title, who can say). The first 30 seconds of both أحمد and Abdul-Malik’s recording sound almost exactly alike, but that’s where every expectation begins its gradual upendment: because the music أحمد is making isn’t merely a namesake nod to the great bassist’s compositions, it’s a kaleidoscopic reimagining of his works.

It seems hardly a coincidence Abdul-Malik was one of Monk’s core players: there is, in Monk, a constant refracting of his compositions, and many of the later performances, especially the live ones, showcase a group that appears to be playing through all previous realizations of that one song. And there’s something of that in a performance by أحمد, where the track being revisited, so to speak, is almost a conceptual framework, as opposed to a chart to perform. Thomas, who sometimes (read: often) is awkwardly ignored by USA jazz press, dominates his instrument, not unlike Cecil Taylor or Keith Tippett. His approach is multifaceted in the way Taylor’s was, amplified by richly emotive traverses through all ends of the keyboard, like Tippett. But even those contextual frames underplay Thomas’s innovations on the piano. In fact, it might be more appropriate to think of Thomas like Anthony Braxton, whose music Thomas has also performed , in this way: he (and, clearly, Wright, Grip, and Gerbal) thinks deeply about the historical-cultural throughlines of musical ideas, as well as the racist Western blockade that stifled or objectified many of those throughlines, carving gulfs of otherness between interconnected musics. And so, when Wright and Thomas jump in with chordal blocks and piercing harmonics, they’re pulling together so many different threads, it can be a challenge to keep up with. Add to that, the fact that Grip and Gerbal can move for an hour at uncomfortably fast tempos, and you’re in for a wash of improvisation that’s just dazzling. The music isn’t pried apart in the Western deconstructive context, it’s luxuriated in, realized anew, and expanded upon like a wave receding from a shore and echoing back through countless incoming breakers. Astonishingly, أحمد doesn’t really let the listener rest for a full 40 minutes, even on revisits I’ve been at the edge of my seat. Wright is remarkable on alto, his performance like a snarling, squealing fury buzzing in and around the group. When Grip takes a solo later in the song, Wright performs a brief buzz-by, a slight teasing exit before the spotlight on their namesake’s primary instrument. It’s an honorable gesture, like the cover photo of the man himself posing with his instrument, and draws a clear line back to the solo-trading of slightly more conventional bop. But it’s soon gone, as the remainder rejoins Grip, and the four of them go fussily forward, Wright squawking, Thomas parking chunky blocks in formation, and Gerbal almost breezily swinging forward. One can just make out a smile forming, possibly on all their faces. Oh, how I would love to be there next time.


Anonymous said...

if you´d been in Berlin at their concert last year, you could have experienced and now imagine them playing live very well... 🙂 free your mind, Mr. Epstein.

Tony Simon said...

This recording is very compelling listen for me, and I enjoyed the journey it sent me on. But I'm not gonna lie, I needed some semblance of a map to orient me and appreciate it more deeply. Your review does that, and then some---thank you! I'll embark anew.

Richard said...

I just picked this one up and it is well worth the 5 stars. I don't know if FJC still does artist of the year, but Thomas seems like a worthy candidate to me, between this and the funky Braxton album.

This is also a really well-written review. Bonus points for "upendment", which I think you invented.

Lee said...

Thanks, Richard (yes, I may have invented that one) and Tony.

I completely agree about Thomas, he is having an incredible year. There is a Black Top album, an album with Thurston Moore and Mark Sanders, and he is on a couple others coming up. Artist of the year, no doubt.