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Thursday, July 28, 2022

James Singleton – Malabar (Sinking City Records, 2022)

By Nick Ostrum

James Singleton is the go-to bassist for the New Orleans free music scene. Actually, he is a go-to for many other corners of this strange musical enclave, as well, which speaks to the far-ranging influences strewn throughout Malabar, his recent release with a sextet comprised of Mike Dillon on vibes and percussion (who, with Singleton, opened for the Messthetics when they passed through town a few years ago), Justin Peake on drums and electronics, Rex Gregory on clarinet, flute, and saxophone, Brad Walker on saxophone, and Jonathan Freilich (New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, et al.) on guitar.

If you want an entry point to the free jazz scene in New Orleans today, this might just be it. It does not quite reach the grit of the NY-downtown and Chicago scenes. It does not approach the new sounds bent of Berlin, Lisbon, and Tokyo. There is no noise here. Instead, this is free jazz peppered with country inflection flavored with a healthy dose of funk jamboree. And it works.

Singleton is from Chicago, and some of that origin shows through here. The influences are varied, from musical song structures – frequently changing tempos and moods – to post-bop horns to steady but heavy rock drumming to a thicker lather of New Orleans groove. Singleton’s vamping and bass runs form the background to these pieces more than anything else, though all participants get their space to shine. Dillon shows some chops especially as he races around the vibraphone on the spirited title track, which, pars pro totem, is very much a composition of various stylings and elements. It starts as a contemporary progressive jazz piece and ends with an expansive passage of neoclassical ambling. The next piece, Where Where Is, picks up with that thread of openness, but avoids the protean rhythm-melody structure that characterizes most other pieces on the album. Instead, Where Where Is doubles down on the textured soundscape. Other tracks, such as the wistful So Long Tall Rex, the spirited opener Black Sheep Squared, the playfully sinister Bluebelly and others rely much more on curious harmonies and phrasings on reeds and guitar and a persistent driving bass coupled with some evenhanded percussion and vigorous vibes.

The liner notes bring up commonalities with some classics of free jazz composition: Conference of the Birds, Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and the Liberation Music Orchestra. I hear the influence in the complex and entangled compositions. That said, Malabar hits on different aesthetic points, and the fact that it works so convincingly is testament to the musicians as well as the vision of Singleton. Something different is going on in New Orleans free(er) music. More effectively than I have heard before, Malabar balances the whimsy of the city’s musical history (and the funk that flavors much of the music here, for better or worse) with broader trends in the avant-garde.

Malabar is available as a record and download and is available here