Concrete Science
577 Records #5

Making Eye Contact with God
Utech Records UR 007

Notes from the underground – New York’s Free Jazz underground to be more precise – these CDs demonstrate that the spirit of constant experimentation is still potent on both sides of the Brooklyn Bridge.

Perhaps confirming that Manhattan is now cozier for stock brokers than musicians, both these trio CDs were recorded in Brooklyn, CONCRET SCIENCE in a studio, MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH GOD at two different clubs. Privation economics also come into play with the recordings. CONCRET SCIENCE is on drummer Federico Ughi’s own small label, MAKING EYE CONTACT WITH GOD is released by a boutique label in an initial pressing of 50.

Noting the titles, it would be tempting to hear the discs as respectively representing faith and science. But, except for fundamentalist right wingers, more sophisticated listeners ascribe a closer, non-adversary relationship between the two disciplines. In short the CD by trumpeter/bass clarinetist Matt Lavelle with bassist Matt Heyner and drummer Ryan Sawyer is no more ecstatic than the other CD. And the five pieces performed by Ughi plus trombonist Steve Swell and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter are no more technically fluent than the four on Lavelle’s

Chief points of congruence pinpoint limitations, though. Both discs suffer from a lack of pacing, with too many pieces allowed to go on at too great length in similar pitches and tempos. Ughi and associates can be faulted more here, since they recorded in studio. Live, the three players on Lavelle’s CD can say that improvisational heat carried then past their boundaries.

Ironically, the almost 20-minute“Sweat Lodge Dance” contains some of the most exciting playing on the disc. Midway through after Lavelle on trumpet has blasted out a set of triplets that would have made Roy Eldridge proud, he continues with a spectacular display of brass technique encompassing long tremolos and short punchy valve effects. This is followed by a powerful solo from Heyner where he seems to be rubbing raw wire onto his strings, backed by legato bass clarinet cadences and rattling hi-hat. Earlier the drummer scrapes echoed tones from his snares and toms, then. Hitting the drums with robotic precision Sawyer ends the piece backed by arco squeaks from the bassist and pedal point from Lavelle. Impressive enough, the track would have been even more so at three-quarters its length.

Elsewhere Lavelle demonstrates his doubling talent. On trumpet he can explode into an orgy of brassy triple tonguing à la Freddie Hubbard and as easily suggest the wistful, barely-there lyricism of a Don Cherry, with cross purpose smears. On bass clarinet, his lines are grainier, dissonant and more obtuse than most jazzers who utilize the clarinet’s larger brother. Often rising to altissimo in his solos, he’s still able to fall into mine-shift deep pitches for effect.

Both these talents are put to good use on “Ace of Cups” that lasts more than 27½ minutes. Gritty, half-valve work, braying, open-horned slurs and bugle-like cadences characterize Lavelle’s trumpeting. On bass clarinet, extending a firm sound to snorting squeals, he works out double counterpoint with Heyner’s spiccato bass runs. Often strumming, the bassist shifts up and down his strings, sometimes arco, other times pizzicato. That way he links with tremolos from either of Lavelle’s horns or the press rolls, rim shots and shivering cymbal tolls from Sawyer. The trumpeter’s final underscored breath may provide a perfect finale, but more internal editing from all three could have produced something even more spectacular.

Besides working in Lavelle’s band, Sawyer has recorded with guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, while Heyner is both in the No Neck Blues Band and TEST with Carter. Meanwhile Lavelle has played with Swell in The Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra and in smaller groups. Somewhat apart is Ughi, a New York native since 2000, but who spent the late 1990s in London, where he co-led the After Breakfast quartet and played European venues.

Continental sensibility may be why the majority of tunes on CONCRET SCIENCE are a bit draggy, and like those on the Lavelle disc, most are a touch too long. Carter, who has worked with nearly everyone in New York over the past two decades, contributes to the somewhat despondent tempos as well, especially when his resonances of choice are gentle flute lines or moderato clarinet echoes. Trading in tougher timbres, Swell’s improvisations are the liveliest part of the CD, but after a while even he gets trapped within the desultory, drawn-out tunes.

His best outing occurs in the slightly more than seven-minute “Our Own Fingerprints”, where his fat plunger tone develops in triplets, bringing forth buzzy, accentuated runs from Carter’s clarinet and a thrusting cross rhythm from Ughi.

There’s no lack of talent of technique or talent on the disc, but when “Now and Ever Resistance” clocks in at more than 17 minutes and “Middleclass Madness”, at a touch over 18, something seems amiss. You need real patience to properly distinguish between these two instant compositions in nearly duplicate tempo and meandering pitch. At points here as well, the three appear to be improving separately in the same room.

On “Middleclass Madness”, Swell contribute slide barks and buzzing burrs and Ughi produces hollow reverberations, pinpointed cymbals bounces and blunt snare strokes, but intersection is lacking. On the former, the trombonist snorts and smears, while moving among his reed arsenal, beeping, overblowing or reed-biting, Carter could be a group of horn players himself. Meantime the drummer circles around both, rumbling his snares and double clapping his cymbals. At full steam the three take on the timbres of the similarly constituted New York Art Quartet sans bassist. But except in snatches that illusion too is overcome by drawn-out sameness.

Constantly experimenting players such as the six on these CDs are expected to be a little rough around the edges, with pieces often raw and unfinished. That why they aren’t stuck in the too-perfect morass of neo-con playing. In truth, Swell, Carter, Lavelle and Hayner have been heard to better effect elsewhere. Still both discs are worth investigating as a snapshot of what’s happening right now just below the surface on the Apple’s improv scene.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: God: 1. Ace of Cups 2. Eye Contact with God 3. Mars in the Fourth House 4. Sweat Lodge Dance

Personnel: God: Matt Lavelle (trumpet and bass clarinet); Matt Heyner (bass); Ryan Sawyer (drums)

Track Listing: Science: 1. Now and Ever Resistance 2. Soul’s Underwood Tunnels 3. Middleclass Madness 4. Our Own Fingerprints 5. Concrete Science

Personnel: Science: Steve Swell (trombone); Daniel Carter (alto and tenor saxophones, flue and clarinet); Federico Ughi (drums)