February 9, 2004
Fusillades & Lamentations
Leo LR 364
Distinctive differences between East and West Coast improvisers vanished around the time 40 years ago when Ornette Coleman and Sonny Rollins helped make the sax/bass/drums trio a common configuration among jazzers.
Today when an improv trio can consist of any three instrumentalists from just about anywhere, threesomes like the two featured on these CDs mainly announce a commitment to unfettered jazz-based experimentation. Coming from a similar source, the differences arent geographical but creative, and this time out, surprisingly, the West has the edge.
The surprise appears partially because two of the Easterners in Stone House, alto saxophonist and flutist Rob Brown from New York and Connecticut bassist Joe Morris — in his capacity as a guitarist — are two of the best-known exponents of so-called ecstatic jazz. Experienced stylists, the two have been playing together since 1993.
Conversely, the leader and alto saxophonist of the other band, Seattles Wally Shoup taught himself how to play the saxophone when he was nearly 30 years old. A visual artist and new music cheerleader, hes often thought of as an advocational player, if hes known at all. Furthermore his band here was an on-again/off-again proposition, with bassist Rueben Radding since moving back to New York.
The reason for the imbalance may rest in the fingers and mouth of Brown. With Stone House filled out by new drummer Luther Gray, who is also a member of indie rock group Tsunami as well as Morris guitar trio, and Morris moving away from the foreground to play bass, the balance among the collective trios members is shifted, with Browns contributions overweighed. Unfortunately, as the dominant lead voice, his tendency to be shrill and frankly long-winded is unchecked. At 69 minutes the CD never seems to end.
Only four minutes shorter, but with one more track, FUSILADES & LAMENTATIONS appears to have more breathing space. Abstract, but not abrasive, Shoup takes things at a measured pace. Furthermore, the saxman gives his sidemen enough room to be creative. And the bassist plus drummer Bob Rees — a classically trained percussionist, who has also performed with New York multi-reedist and Radding associate Daniel Carter and British bassist John Edwards — use the space to great advantage.
Key techniques on show are pacing and sense of dynamics, with many of the tunes taking on balladic properties. Even when Shoup overblows and flutter tongues he makes sure you know his reed is permeable, as on Black Tusk. Moving from simple tones to rooster-crowing expostulations, he seems to be able to widen his vibrato to such an extent that it spurts out colored air before subsiding again. Meanwhile Rees is accompanying all this with a regular pattern from his mallets on the tom toms, some cymbal slaps and an ascending press roll that gathers power until he abruptly snaps it off.
Radding double and triple stops, then holds the pace with strong arco movements on The Sacrificial Lion, the CDs longest track. Not that this slows down the pieces adagio momentum, nor does the percussionists bell tree tingling, snare and cymbal work. Burred and buzzed trills make up Shoups contributions, as his irregular vibrations help him sideslip into another key. Soon klaxon-like cries create even more momentum as he slows down his output for an a cappella circular breathing exercise, soon overblowing to get two reed sounds at once.
Despite Shoups smaller horn, the three come closest to Rollins most experimental bands on The Slammer, a dissonant cantata of squeals, squeaks and slurs in the altos highest register with the widest vibrato possible. Soon the saxman is buzzing from within his horns body tube mixing intimations of a Middle Eastern ney and Western extended techniques. Rees steady, near-boppish beat and rattling sticks is reminiscent of what Billy Higgins could bring to situations with both Rollins and Coleman, while Raddings bowed asides and time keeping situate him midway between David Izenzon with Coleman and Bob Cranshaw with Rollins. Shoup achieves his climax with a giant high-pitched honk that works its way up from the saxophones bow with great ferocity.
Prone to add the odd duck quack, Bronx cheer, pattern of staccato honks and extended altissimo squeaks, Shoup still manages to avoid grating harshness, even at his most dissonant. Low key, Rees adds whats needed from his kit or extended percussion. When hes not plucking and stroking or bowing and picking. Raddings tone often combines with Shoups so that it sounds like two closely allied reed instruments.
You couldnt say the same about LIKEWISE. In contrast to his distinctive guitar playing, Morris is a rock steady, but rather conventional, accompanying bassist who seems to be holding back throughout. Meanwhile Browns keening tone seems fully divorced from any bass timbre.
Even when Morris does assert himself more loudly, as on Lifelike, with steady fingering, some double stopping and a good tone, and Gray shows some percussive power from his snares and toms, the result is anticlimactic. The piece appears to fade, rather than end, as well. Did everyone get bored?
Elsewhere its Browns show all the way with the saxman honking and squealing in the most frenzied and least appealing fashion possible. Triple tonguing and screaming at the top of his horns register, he appears to be rehashing his licks every chance he gets. Unlike earlier admirable sessions with guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, many of bassist William Parkers groups and Morris, his finesse seems to have exited, replaced by unreconstructed moaning and whining.
Even when he sideslips into sharp Eric Dolphy-like trills and reed bites as on the title track, this variety doesnt add much. Even with the rhythm section producing a conventional drum roll and walking bass continuum throughout and the drummer and saxist trading fours at the end, it appears something is missing. A flute feature, made up of nearly endless, lethargic toots and whistles is just as mundane.
That said, the only time Brown can be said to rouse himself is on Turning, the sets shortest track. With a steady plucked bass line and smashing, rumbling drums behind him, the reedists disintegrating sax line has some heft and strident power, though a variation in tone and timbre would have helped.
With all the talent, technique and power available in Stone House, it can only be hoped that the band heads into the studio again soon and produces the session of which its members are obvious capable. But right now, when it comes to comparing these trios in terms of in dexterity, subtlety and inventiveness, the West is the best and deserves your time.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Fusillades: 1. The Sacrificial Lion 2. Peloria 3. CorkSkrewed 4. Black Tusk 5. Lament 6. The Slammer 7. Laying Low 8. Kiss Off
Personnel: Fusillades: Wally Shoup (alto saxophone); Rueben Radding (bass); Bob Rees (drums)
Track Listing: Likewise: 1. Meet Me in Another Reality 2. Likewise 3. Emotion of Space 4. Turning 5. Lifelike 6. Ground Truth 7. Open Oblique
Personnel: Likewise: Rob Brown (alto saxophone, flute); Joe Morris (bass); Luther Gray (drums)