Sticks & Stones
482 Music 482-1012

Playing improvised music in a trio setting can be the most revelatory, as well as the most humbling, experience for any jazz musician. Not only does each side of the triangle have to fit just perfectly for the music to take its proper shape, but the looming accomplishments of earlier bands in that configuration can make anyone wary.

Working in the most common saxophone-bass-drum arrangement, Chicago natives alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Chad Taylor have set out with this cooperative combo to craft their own sound. Each contributes three tunes to the CD. Overall, though, the result is a split decision. Some of the tracks are interesting; others drag. More seriously it appears that the skills and versatility of Taylor overpower the other two.

Probably also the one-third of the band with the most experience, the drummer is percussionist for all the variations of the Chicago Underground ensembles, and has also performed with reedmen such as Joe McPhee, Roscoe Mitchell and Fred Anderson, plus master bassist William Parker. Solid, steady and undemanding Abrams rarely asserts himself here. A member of both Town and Country and David Boykin’s Expanse, the bassist stays in the background as he does with those other bands. Meanwhile, frontwoman Roberts, an Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) member, who currently resides in New York, slides from producing fiery foreground explorations on some tunes to slipping into slow, subdued expositions on others.

Most of the time her tone is smooth and almost tentative, more like earlier Windy City boppish altoists like John Jenkins than fellow AACMers. She’s not really tentative, but when she introduces a section that sounds as if it’s going to develop into Sonny Rollins’ “East Broadway Rundown” but doesn’t; or on one Taylor piece appears to be quoting “Let’s Face The Music and Dance”; she seems to be reacting to what the others are playing rather than pulling her own weight.

Both of the first two tunes are less than memorable and a further ominous sign appears when the three only loosen up on “Lose My Number”, one of the two compositions here not written by a group member. Based around a child-like Ornette Coleman-style vamp, Roberts pays homage to the New Thing with repeated honks and trills to such an extent that the drummer soon decides to play Sunny Murray to her Albert Ayler. Although she counters with some Trane-like cadenzas, it’s Taylor’s snare and cymbal work that make most impression. Her own “Hanibul”(sic) is more of the same, not a lot better. Here Abrams finally make his presence felt producing some bowed Jimmy Garrison-style lines, which curl around Roberts’ alto as if it was Trane’s soprano. Because of this, and Taylor powerfully sounding Elvin Jones-like gestures, the saxist appears to be driven to whining reed biting and multiphonics, constructing variations on variations of each phrase. Furthermore, Taylor’s powerful sideslipping solo reverses the equation, with the other two playing the role of sidefolk as if they were in one of Jones’ bands.

Following a pretty standard reggae run-through of Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Sons of Slaves”, with the bassist and drummer making like Sly and Robbie, the three replicate a tambourine-driven beat on Taylor’s “Salvador”. More like an avant bossa nova then a roots ballad from the Caribbean, Abrams appears to be just starting to lay out the necessary uniform beat and Roberts opening up with some trills and smears when the piece fades out.

Each member of Roberts/Abrams/Taylor appears to be talented and on-and-off here show that he or she can create and play on boppish foot tappers as well as some tunes with unusual rhythms. But overall, it appears that the commitment to raise this session above merely interesting is missing. Perhaps next time out things will operate at a higher level. If the three could just adopt some of the force usually associated with sticks and stones, the results should be so much better. Right now, we’ll just hope these words won’t harm them.

— Ken Waxman

1. Turning the Mark 2. Equally Strong 3. Lose My Number 4. Suhasani 5. End of the Game 6. Usetosay 7. Sons of Slaves 8. Hannibul 9. Spaces 10. Salvador 11. Spicer

Personnel: Matana Roberts (alto saxophone); Josh Abrams (bass); Chad Taylor (drums)