With Sam Rivers
Isospin Labs 42058

Mining Our Bid’ness
Roaratorio Roar 04

More dispatches from the American heartland again prove that original improvised music is alive and well in such unlikely (for jazz snobs) places as Minneapolis, Minn. (Carei Thomas’ band) and the Tampa Bay-St. Petersburg region of Florida (Fluid Motion with septuagenarian reedist Sam Rivers).

Both albums are praiseworthy and a strong indication that the neo-cons haven’t forced every musician to become a mainstream android, churning out approved versions of accepted jazz standards. But, paradoxically, the fact that the bands represented perform far away from the critical mass of outside improvisers who cluster in New York, Chicago, the Bay area and Boston means that the writing and playing here isn’t as far out as the musicians probably imagine they are.

In truth, the compositions of 64-year-old pianist Thomas, an underground legend in the Twin Cities since 1972, and Fluid Motion’s trombonist David Mason, who encourages and presents new music in his twin cities, are modern mainstream ones with experimental touches. Inventive and impressive, the quasi-freebop you’ll hear on both discs is standard currency in most major jazz centres. That they seem avant garde in these cities shows how far the tentacles of the neo-cons have reached into every jazz scene.

Interestingly enough, the other situation MINING and FLUID share in common is that the featured lead voice is a well-known saxophonist who isn’t the group’s main composer. Thomas’ Feel Free Ensemble showcases the soprano, alto and tenor saxophone work of Minneapolis resident George Cartwright, leader and chief composer of the jazz-rock band Curlew. Mason’s Fluid Motion sextet is built around the saxophone plus flute playing of recent Florida resident Rivers, famous for a stint with Miles Davis in the 1960s, who has recorded many outstanding discs over a 40 year period, and whose Studio RivBea loft provided many of New York’s experimenters a place to play in the 1970s.

Mason’s EMIT series of new and experimental music concerts has been trying since 1995 to do the same for Central Florida as RivBea did for Manhattan, and this disc is a logical outgrowth of that work. All and all though, many of the pieces sound like what would have happened if the most advanced members of The Jazz Messengers had had a gig at Slug’s Saloon in the mid-1960s.

The language, for a start, is definitely hard bop — the constant groove of bassist Doug Mathews and drummer Anthony Cole, who usually complete Rivers’ trio, see to that. In fact, many of the finger snappers may have reminded the saxophonist of his stint with Blue Note records in the 1960s.

Furthermore when the saxist’s grating low-pitched multiphonics mix with Mason’s tone-varying trombone inflections, the effect is as if saxophonist Archie Shepp’s band from the 1960s with trombonists Roswell Rudd or Grachan Moncur III was on board, especially on a quasi-stomp like “Poodle Science”. Paradoxically the solos of trumpeter Jonathan Powell — more than 50 years Rivers’ junior — are the most straightahead throughout the disc. More Freddie Hubbard than Don Cherry, the brassman may reflect that insidious neo-con influence.

Manson describes his tunes as ones that “groove, stretch, break apart, and reassemble for another round. They fit together like a Calder mobile when they succeed”. That’s true to an extent, but with some arrangements seemingly built on classic traditional jazz patterns — high instrument’s lines on top, lower ones on the bottom — the proper comparison may be to a functional LEGO set. “Tangents”, for instance, is a funky hand clapper built on bass ostinato, as is the more restrained “Whispers”, though the later features more unison horn work and a shuffle rhythm from the drums. Most tunes have the quintet members tossing phrases back and forth in approved freebop manner, with Mason showing his inventiveness at times on mellow, muted horn, Rivers adding some Orientalism on sweet soprano sax, Cole producing Latinesque accents and Mathews double timing his syncopation.

“Crossdrift” is the only composition that starts with a classic free jazz tenor saxophone solo. It’s set off by rolling drum kit parts that then showcases wheezing trills from Rivers after the theme has been elaborated by the other horns. Mason then shows off his facility at double tonguing and Powell finally unveils some plunger mute ornaments, though in a pretty limited range.

In another part of the country, general utility man on Thomas’ date is Steve Sandberg, who plays trombone, tuba, baritone horn, bass funnelphone (!) and piccolo funnelphone (!!). Whatever those last two instruments are or what they add to the date is up in the air, but the CD is most valuable for finally getting into general circulation Thomas’ music.

Pittsburgh-born Thomas gigged in Chicago as an improvising vocalist with Sun Ra’s band in the early 1960s. In the middle of the decade, as a pianist, he put together a group with saxophonist with Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre that included drummer Jerome Cooper and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. More recently, his associates in Minneapolis have included multi-instrumentalist Douglas Ewart, another Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) member, plus the players on this disc.

Moving at a slower place than tunes on the other CD, the Feel Free Ensemble is literally an ensemble, with Thomas’ piano rarely front and centre. One of the few examples of his playing is found on “Baby Baby, Home Buddy,” a tone poem where his sylvan chording meshes with arco bass lines and very miscellaneous percussion wobbles. In the front line tenor man Cartwright produces a breathy Ben Webster boudoir saxophone tone, doubled by a throaty counter melody from Sandberg’s trombone. Tuba and alto saxophone advance the head on the next track, but Tim DuRoche’s drumming and Brock Thorson’s bass lines are strictly in the hard bop mode.

“Invention #1: Way North of the Order”, a modal vamp and the longest track, moves very slowly with drummer Alden Ikeda contributing a shuffle beat. Sandberg brings out his baritone horn, Cartwright intros with tongue slaps, then mixes some braying atonality from his reed with a tough, mulched valve sound from the trombonist. All the while Thorson produces a steady accompanying pulse.

The tenor saxophonist also loosens up with some mild multiphonics on the second version of “Monsieur Duprée (Carton XV)”. Taken at a stately gait rather than the light swing of version #1, which features another Twin City legend, tenor saxophonist William R. Lang, this one relies on the dual (“aeriel” and “terre”) basses of Adam Linz and Thorson for its rhythmic shape. Cartwright’s squeaks and trills and Thomas’ comping seem to merely lengthen the tune toward lugubriousness. Maybe one version would have sufficed.

Alternately, “Tippy/One Ahead”, dedicated to all victims of violence is one programmatic tune that really seems to work. Again moving at near stasis pace, it slowly changes from being a tenor sax-directed lament to one where the vocalized screams and cries from Cartwright seem to reflect violence, as do the focused drum beats from Ikeda.

These twin heartland dispatches are worth investigating to familiar yourself with under-heralded musicians. But don’t listen expecting to hear anything all that different from improvised music in bigger centres.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: With: 1. Fluid Motion 2. Poodle Science 3. Tephlon 4. Whispers 5. Pengquan 6. Crossdrift 7. Following 8. Tangents

Personnel: With: Jonathan Powell (trumpet); David Manson (trombone); Sam Rivers (soprano and tenor saxophones, flute); Doug Mathews (bass); Anthony Cole (drums)

Track Listing: Mining: 1. Monsieur Duprée (Carton XV)* 2. Magicmysticmaestromentor~3. Baby Baby, Home Buddy# 4. The Awestruck Waters of Antiquity# 5. Tippy/One Ahead~ 6. Invention #1: Way North of the Order~ 7. Monsieur Duprée (Carton XV)~+ 8. Accordance~+

Personnel: Mining: Steve Sandberg (trombone, tuba, baritone horn, bass funnelphone and piccolo funnelphone); George Cartwright (soprano, alto and tenor saxophones) or William R. Lang (tenor saxophone)*; Carei Thomas (piano); Brian Roessler*, Brock Thorson [all other tracks] (bass); Adam Linz (ariel bass)+; Eric Coursen* or Alden Ikeda~ or Tim DuRoche# (drums)