MUJICIAN

Spacetime
Cuneiform Rune 162

Together for almost a decade and a half, the sound of the British quartet Mujician, is, if anything more exhilarating than it has ever been.

Working within the instrumental parametres of the standard post-bop combo — piano, bass, drums and saxophone — the band situates itself in a space midway between what could be called BritImprov and American energy music. In other words, while some sections of the more than 72½ minutes of music on this disc are given over to microscopic instrumental evisceration through extended technique and emphasis, others spew out molten-hot slabs of intense, protracted, multi-faceted free jazz assertions.

Also you could say that there’s bit of false advertising in the compositions’ timing. Although the disc purports to be a record of the group improvising in 15 small sections, none over 10 minutes long, aurally the pieces combine into two long explorations of about 31½ and 39½ minutes respectively. Not that this makes much of a difference, because the raison d’être of Mujician, since its birth in 1988, has been how seamlessly one tune flows into the next. And this disc is no exception.

Consider the seven sections of the title track, for instance, as at one point Paul Dunmall’s sonorous soprano saxophone travels from the Far East to the Middle East. First it resembles ceremonial flute played in Oriental court which is mixed with an echoing gong sound from drummer Tony Levin, then a few minutes later vocalizes muezzin-like cries that join pianist Keith Tippett’s modal piano chords.

With his playing quiet and well modulated in certain sections, at times you’re caught by surprise when the sax man starts duetting with himself — quickly tossing out one line and almost immediately answering it. On tenor, a solo that begins with key pops and slap tonguing can turn seriously virtuosic, as he uses circular breathing to boomerang his tones backwards as if they’d just hit the walls of a squash court. Later, when the saxophonist holds a note for an inordinate length of time, the drummer uses his palms to suggest tabla-like sounds on his snare, as the pianist alternates repeated keyboard clusters and inside piano explorations. Not to be outdone, throughout bassist Paul Rogers either uses elongated finger gestures to dexterously speed up and down his instrument’s neck or turns to pure power chording, plucking and tugging accompaniment from its deepest regions.

Moving from pacific spiritualism to modal frenzy and back again appears to be little more than a stroll along the garden path for this band.

“Exquisitely Woven Spiritual Communication”, offers more of the same, which each “mujician” given space to shine. Veteran of solo piano concerts, a studio membership in King Crimson and numberless collaborations over the past 30 years, here Tippett goes hyperpiano specialists like Denman Maroney one better, producing fleet, quirky string slides as if he was playing a harpsichord. Elsewhere he appears to be burrowing away inside the instrument’s delicate mechanism when he’s not strumming the strings and sounding the keys at the same time.

Most senior improviser by almost a decade, Levin had prime mainstream experience with the likes of tenor man Zoot Sims and flugelhornist Art Farmer before committing himself fully to free music. Here, for the sake of the instant composition, he bangs out a military tattoo at one point and what could be the resonance of a kettle drum at another, contrasting them with barely audible percussion underscoring and near-ceremonial cymbalism.

In tandem, there are times the four can create their own U.K. rendering of the classic John Coltrane quartet. Tippett’s swirling, modal piano references McCoy Tyner; Rogers, who is better-known for having worked alongside the likes of saxophonists Lol Coxhill, and Elton Dean, than American freeboppers, alternately walks, strums and bows like a Jimmy Garrison clone. Meanwhile Dunmall, who actually did accompany Alice Coltrane at one point, spews out reed flotsam and jetsam like Trane at his most experimental; while Levin, who grew up with the style, becomes as fast and furious as Elvin Jones.

But that’s where the comparison, breaks down however. Rogers, who often uses a stand up six-string bass is more supple than Garrison. Levin, who makes it apparent in other contexts, offers more than just Jones’s raw power. Tippett is, paradoxically, at times either a lighter-toned or more robust sounding keyboardist than Tyner. And Dunmall has his own method of reed, mouthpiece and body emphasis.

So don’t fasten on American models. Pick up this CD for Tippett’s two handed pianism, which flow from European classicism as well as jazz, and Dunmall’s range of honks and individual sheets of sound, to name two of its virtues.

Quartet or not, it’s no second coming of any other combo, but a new example of Mujician music pure and simple. That’s what makes listening worth your while.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Spacetime 1. - 7.; Exquisitely Woven Spiritual Communication 8 - 15.

Personnel: Paul Dunmall (soprano and tenor saxophone); Keith Tippett (piano); Paul Rogers (bass); Tony Levin (drums)