Configurations 2002
Edgetone EDT 4009

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, are all highlighted on the more than two hours of this double-CD set by Bay area saxophonist Jim Ryan. But the nuptials being celebrated here are the successful marriage of some veteran players’ post bebop improvisations with those from a new generation of North Californian players.

That takes care of the old and new part. The blue(s) feature on a few of these tracks, while the only thing that’s really “borrowed” is jazz music itself, which some would mistakenly deny to someone like Ryan, who doesn’t conventionally swing.

A poet, writer and philosopher, Ryan, who plays alto and tenor saxophones and flute on this date, came to the music in Paris during the mid-1960s,after rubbing shoulders with Beat writers such as William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg. Then he performed with American expats like Steve Lacy and members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Back in the states, and in the Bay area by the mid-1990s, he turned his organizational talents to procuring new spaces in which to play for himself and the clutch of young improvisers who had sprung up nearby. With their constantly shifting cast of characters, these tracks showcase Ryan and his associates in a series of free improvisations.

The veterans include Spirit, a drummer with hairspring reflexes, who is the saxophonist’s most frequent playing partners here, and part of the Positive Knowledge trio; trumpeter Eddie Gale, who played with Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra; and drummer Donald Robinson a long-time associate of saxophonists like Larry Ochs and the late Glenn Spearman. Younger improvisers include prodigious bassist Damon Smith, who has recorded with British saxophonist Tony Bevan and German bassist Peter Kowald among others; Full Throttle Orchestra leader bassist Adam Lane; drummer Peter Valsamis, who is in the Trance Mission band; and keyboardist/electronics expert Scott Looney, who has recorded on his own and in formations with scene organizer/saxophonist Rent Romus, who also makes an cameo appearance here. Lesser-known West Coast sax improvisers Alicia Mangan and John “Waveman” Gruntfest also make the cut.

The tunes range from a low-key, three minute Spirit-Ryan duet, and another even shorter one that adds Mangan and Smith, to one nearly 19½ minute blow-out with those two saxophonists, the rhythm section plus Romus and Looney and an even more extensive, almost 31-minute color field examination featuring Ryan, Mangan, Looney, Lane and Robinson.

Besides Ryan, it’s Spirit, featured on 11 of the 13 tracks, who makes the most of his face time. A minimalist and a timekeeper, rather than a technician, at certain points he makes his presence felt more than heard. Although he apparently uses a standard kit, the sounds heard could as easily come from a bell tree, tam tam, conga drums, or a wood block. Additionally, except for a distinctive cymbal ping, you often wonder if he’s using his palms rather than sticks or brushes and frequently can’t link a sound to a particular instrument. This is particularly noticeable on “Interchange with the Unknown” in a trio setting with Mangan and Ryan on alto. Merely suggesting the beat, he clears out enough space for the altoist’s Aylerian cries and mellow fanfares from the tenorwoman. Combing at points like Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing two horn simultaneously, the carnal tones of the two saxes at times recall Sonny Rollins’ vivisection of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”.

Just as prominent is Looney, who with his grab bag of keyboards and electronics frequently earns MVP status. On the almost 18 minute “Roto Vision”, for instance, constant electronic percussion and subtle drum rolls from Spirit provide the underpinning for Ryan and Mangan playing ring-around-the-rosie on reeds. More notably, “Hollow Moon” finds Looney as triple threat, supplying at different times, synthesizer washes, internal keyboard exploration and straightahead piano comping as the altoist and tenorist display double tonguing freak notes, split tones and a dog’s breakfast of multiphonics.

Showcasing, right-handed, nervous runs on piano and matched by Spirit’s loose-limbed drumming, Looney and the percussionist come across as a 21st century Cecil Taylor/Sunny Murray duo on “Contemplation”. The harmonica-like wheeze that opens the track could come from his keys as well, or it could be a floating tone that escapes from the massed saxes of Mangan, Ryan and Romus. Honks, trills, smears, broken clusters and triple tonguing fill the air, with someone — Ryan? Romus? — tone-piercing the sky and the other two swabbing the floor with deep tenor notes. Smith has a longed-lined arco section here too, which, unfortunately, is one of the few times he’s clearly heard on the disc.

Mammoth, the almost-31 minute “History Lesson”, which moves from ballad tempo to finger-snapper, gains a lot from Looney’s talents as well. At times he punctuates the proceedings with serpentine electric piano-like runs, straight from Chick Corea’s early fusion musings, while elsewhere he adds to R&B undertone of the main piece, with some bluesy piano tinkles. Probably titled that way because the composition mixes hard bop, New Thing and Fusion impulses, Robinson’s rock solid beat keeps the time steady enough for Ryan on alto to show that fealty to David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford soulfulness enlivens his avant-garde leanings, while Mangan’s overblowing honks of pure colored noise fool you into thinking that more saxes than the two featured on the track were present. The only disappointment is that Lane’s low-key, rather mainstream solo is under-recorded. On his only appearance on “Balls to the Wall” (sic) brassman Gale proves that the California climate hasn’t dulled his fire.

For someone who isn’t well known outside his home base, Ryan has proven that neither age nor isolation can slow down a good improviser. His cohorts prove the same whether they’re grizzled journeymen or still-evolving tyros. Except for a bit of live-recording muddle, there’s a whole lot to praise here and the disc(s) should proclaim the saxophonist’s name to a larger public.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1. 1. Jump Start*@^$ 2. Shape Shifting*@ 3. Etheric Cleanse*@$ 4. Light Breeze@ 5. Hollow Moon*@^$ 6. Little Dipper@ 7. Contemplation*~@^$ 8. Flute Spirit@ 9. Interchange with the Unknown*@ 2. 1. Balls to the Wall+& 2. History Lesson*^&# 3. Roto Vision*^$@ 4. Turtle Boat*^$@

Personnel: Eddie Gale (trumpet)+; John “Waveman” Gruntfest (alto saxophone)+; Rent Romus (soprano and alto saxophones)~; Jim Ryan (alto and tenor saxophones, flute, percussion); Alicia Mangan (tenor saxophone)*; Scott R. Looney (piano, prepared piano, melodica)^; Adam Lane (bass)&; Damon Smith (bass)$; Spirit (drums and percussion)@;Peter Valsamis (drums)+; Donald Robinson (drums)#