This is free jazz for those who are wary of free jazz
Mack Avenue BRO 4003
Gerald Cleaver: drums; Kevin Ray: bass; Scott Robinson: tenor sax, alto clarinet, tarogato, trumpet, slide cornet; Matthew Shipp: piano
I suppose that this is a super group, a kind of latter day ‘Giants of Jazz’. Like the Giants they are aiming to please audiences. The tracks are of moderate length: the longest track is 10.38 and the shortest 0.58. There is nothing that is going to stretch the attention span. This is tentatively putting the toes into the shallows of the avantgarde lake.
Matthew Shipp’s long career has touched on many aspects of contemporary jazz. Shipp’s work often contains traces of Andrew Hill influence. Here, he often seems more like Paul Bley. Like Bley, he has strong sense of direction and the sense not to go too far. We are often told that the key to certain pianists is to think of the piano as a drum. That will not help you with Shipp. He does not view the piano here as percussion but as a melodic instrument to enjoy.
Gerald Cleaver is a fine drummer who can fit into many areas of jazz, moving with ease from playing with Roscoe Mitchell to Tommy Flanagan. His playing shows his open mindedness and his reluctance to be stereotyped.
Kevin Ray has written about East Axis noting that it ‘is more a celebration of the camaraderie and the joie de vivre of collective improvisation, not only among the players, but with the audience as well.’
Scott Robinson, the formidable multi-instrumentalist, is sometimes to be found in the Maria Schneider orchestra. His cultivation of his library of unusual instruments and the unique tones that they can produce is the thinking of a man really in love with music in all its aspects.
The album has a strange meditative beauty where the individual contributions coalesce to produce an experience that is closer to Debussy than Jelly Roll Morton with flavours of Coltrane. The quiet intro to ‘At The Very Least’ with the piano and the formidable alto combining over a powerful ticking drum. Brevity is there on ‘Smebody Just Go In, Please’. The fifty-six seconds opens harshly with drums and piano.
Probably the best way to listen to the album is through excellent headphones while watching a sequence of paintings by abstract expressionists Mark Rothko or Janet Sobel. The pointillistic gentle collision of textures, ideas and tones is beguiling. Ray’s bass, for instance, is beautiful on ‘Sometime, Tomorrow’.
This is carefully presented, enjoyable free jazz for those who are wary of free jazz. It is the kind of album that open minded listeners will want to listen to again and again to search out and absorb the nuances.