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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Jason Stein, Marilyn Crispell, Damon Smith, Adam Shead - spi​-​raling horn (Balance Point Acoustics/ Irritable Mystic Records, 2024)

By Don Phipps

Intense. Explosive. A full-on rumble. That’s just some of the adventure that awaits listeners of “spi-raling horn,” a collection of artist Cy Twombley-inspired spontaneous compositions and improvisations by a quartet comprised of Jason Stein (bass clarinet), Marilyn Crispell (piano), Damon Smith (double bass), and Adam Shead (drums). The music runs the gamut from challenging roller coaster sprints to playful syncopation. And the expertise and talent required to pull all of this off is present in substantial abundance.

Why does the late great Jimmy Lyons come to mind when listening to Stein’s rollicking up and down bass clarinet lines? Stein plays his instrument like a bee buzzing around a new fragrant flower, anxious to experience the nectar within. And like the bee, whose constant flight and buzz are in constant motion, Stein provides dexterous sax key rips and strong ongoing exhortations throughout the album – driving and eliciting amazing responses from his bandmates. His fluid playing and rapid-fire runs are on full display in the cuts “a universe of otherwise” and the instant masterpiece “a rusted bell’s clank.”

Marilyn Crispell, whose excellent work gained prominence in the long-lived Anthony Braxton quartet, fits right in with Stein, and at times dominates the action. Take her prancing opening on “back and back out,” and her powerful control as the piece winds down. Her abstract counterplay keeps “the ground laid open” hopping about – as though the musical sand is just too hot for bare feet!

And the rhythm section – bassist Smith and drummer Shead never let up. Smith’s hands rip up and down the bass neck with forceful plucks. And when he’s not popping the strings, he bows modern flowing lines that seem to race like a Kentucky Derby thoroughbred through fields at full gallop. Check out his bow work on “a song paid by singing,” and, his solo on “a rusted bell’s clank” is simply not to be missed.

Like Smith, Shead generates a lot of heat as he rummages over the traps. There’s not a drum or cymbal he doesn’t touch or a technique he doesn’t bring to bear as he crafts his ocean of sound. Listen to his amazing speed dashes on the cymbals on the number “a rusted bell’s clank.” Or his rolling thunder mallet technique on “so close it cut my ribs.” Or his airy combination of brush and bass drum pedal on “the ground laid open.”

While “a rusted bell’s clank” remains the centerpiece of this album, two other pieces demonstrate that the quartet is not focused solely on power dynamics. First, the fascinating “saturant moon water,” with its lunar sound effects, offers up a musical representation of a spatial expanse. And second, “so close it cut my ribs,” offers up a beautiful opening – like catching one’s breath at the top of a summit that looks out on both sky and ocean.

Albums that combine incredible talent and muscular playing are a delight. And that Stein, Crispell, Smith and Shead have produced this stunning swash-buckling homage to a painter - one whose whole oeuvre was about random musings and free expression - should not be a surprise. Let’s hope there’s more to come !