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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Chad Fowler, George Cartwright, Chris Parker, Kelley Hurt, Luke Stewart, Steve Hirsh, Zoh Amba – Miserere (Mahakala Music, 2023)

By Matty Bannond

Improvisers from across generations and geographies met up for this sonic showdown. Together, they aimed to evoke desperation and hope in these times of social and political turbulence. It’s a supergroup with a bold vision – with big names attacking big ideas at a studio in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Voices are tough to separate on its four tracks, with multiple multi-instrumentalists and many manic passages. Kelley Hurt (voice), Luke Stewart (bass) and Steve Hirsh (drum set) stick to just one weapon. Chris Parker (piano and voice) and Zoh Amba (tenor saxophone and flute) go double-or-nothing. George Cartwright adds alto and tenor saxophones, plus an electric guitar. And Chad Fowler rounds out the hardware with a baritone sax, two flutes and a stritch (a curveless alto saxophone).

The title piece kicks off with a composed shape like a free-jazz overture. There are vocal contributions often, with drumrolls and anticipatory squeaks from the saxophones. A fight-or-flight spirit takes over. It’s a track of rising-water panic, fueled by Hirsh’s high-energy drumming and Hurt’s ghoulish wailing.

Two tracks lean up against Baptist hymns. “Wonderful Words of Life” tugs at the leash for twenty minutes like a car driving slowly in a high gear. It offers the album’s most damp-eyed mood. The final track, “Ut Queant Laxis”, investigates an eighth-century hymn honoring John the Baptist. Full and fuzzy flute tones provide a pretty starting point. There’s a period of pandemonium, but it’s a sultry track overall that creates a feeling of humidity-tiredness and hanging flowerheads.

“Inhaling and Exhaling - For Davey Williams” begins with a reading from Solo Gig, a collection of essays describing Williams’ experiences of free improvisation. The instruments take time to ruminate on ideas from the text. Then they unpack a dizzying spectrum of extended techniques. Zoo animals and barn animals get locked in the same cage, with growls and quacking and something goaty too.

Miserere brings together big-name improvisers to explore the world’s biggest problems. Its sparser moments are spellbinding. The heavier material is a challenge. Perhaps those extremes reflect the supergroup’s aim of evoking desperation and hope. It’s a bold vision – presented in technicolor.

The album is available on CD and as a digital download here .