Scott R. Looney

Urban Rumination
Booklet Notes for Metasphysical Records meta 010

Listeners who know the work of pianist Scott Looney – mostly in the Bay area, but increasingly elsewhere in North America and Europe – may be pleasantly surprised by this fiery session. Those who haven’t yet made his acquaintance will also be impressed.

For unlike Looney’s notable discs highlighting prepared piano and electronics, Urban Rumination is a strong out-and-out Free Jazz date. Besides Looney’s keyboard stylings, it features contributions from three veteran improvisers: alto saxophonist Oliver Lake, trumpeter Paul Smoker and bassist Lisle Ellis. Recorded over two days and combining live and studio tracks, the experience was, as Looney reports, “nothing less than magical”.

This is not a CD trying to recapture 1960s’ energy however. There no drummer in sight and Looney’s prepared piano skill is a judiciously part of these 10 instant compositions. Everyone contributes to the session’s success. One of the World Saxophone Quartet’s founders, Lake’s reed textures range from dissonant to funky. Ellis has a history of cooperation with inventive pianists such as Paul Plimley. Smoker, whose collaborators have included reedist Vinny Golia, is an innovator with whom Looney studied jazz and improvisation. The pianist’s own background encompasses an MFA in composition from California Institute of the Arts, and studies with individuals as different as Roscoe Mitchell and Frederic Rzewski. Looney, whose playing expands the timbral possibilities of the piano with implements and other additions, often uses modular Max/MSP interface. Notably, he recorded and mixed this session himself.

You can imagine the concentration that was required in his different roles when you hear a track like “Conflagrate”. Broken octave patterning from Looney climaxes a round of cascading solos that encompass Smoker’s edgy brays, Lake’s crying pitch-expansions and methodical string-scrubs from Ellis.

Tellingly – and this is where exceptional improvisers show their mettle – the four can be subtly lyrical with the same conviction they demonstrate on staccato pieces. An intermezzo like “Caduceus” wraps trumpet grace notes, kinetic piano comping, thumping bass lines and low-pitched reed vibrations into a chromatic package – which doesn’t avoid some conclusive reed bites and string clanks.

Most remarkably, as Looney explains: “the combinations were nearly always intuitive. Nothing was agreed upon beforehand, except for a couple of studio pieces where a direction or structure was needed.”

Even the quartet’s genesis was an improvisation. Looney, who knew Ellis’ work had contacted him to play with him and Smoker, when the Rochester, N.Y.-based trumpeter visited California. Suddenly Lake, who Looney had briefly met previously, indicated that he would be in town and available for gigs that same weekend. The serendipitous solution was this quartet concert and studio date.

Ever the perfectionist, Looney, speaking as an engineer who has recorded many other sessions, admits there are other ways he could tweak the mix. But few who hear this session could imagine that it needs any improvements – sonically or musically. Without arrogance, the pianist adds: “These pieces are some of the best music I’ve ever participated in.”

Now this CD gives you a chance to experience that music as well.

Ken Waxman Jazz Word ( Toronto June 15, 2009