February 12, 2011
Exploding Star Orchestra
Stars Have Shapes
Delmark DE 595
Mike Reed’s Loose Assembly
Empathetic Parts (with Roscoe Mitchell)
482 Music 482-1074
By Ken Waxman
One of the standout players among Chicago’s recent burgeoning crop of improvised musicians, alto saxophonist Greg Ward is versatile enough to gig with groups ranging from the chamber-oriented International Contemporary Ensemble to those lead by saxophonist Ernest Dawkins and other members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (ACCM). These CDs confirm his skills, although his role is more prominent in drummer Mike Reed’s Loose Assembly then as part of cornetist Rob Mazurek’s 14-piece Exploding Star Orchestra. His contributions to Reed’s Empathetic Parts are even more impressive, since he shares reed duties with saxophonist/flautist Roscoe Mitchell, more than 40 years his senior and an AACM founder. For his part, Mitchell is spontaneous enough to assimilate a performance strategy already tested with the existing five-piece band.
Born in 1982, Ward is part of a younger Windy City contingent that includes Reed, bassist Josh Abrams and vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz – all featured on both CDs – which play together in many different contexts. Another Chicago polymath is Mazurek. Stars Have Shapes marks a major step in his evolution from mainstream jazzer to a composer intermingling improvisation with modules from other musics.
Although dedicated to saxophonist Fred Anderson and trumpeter Bill Dixon, the CD’s four tracks are closer to the latter’s sonic ethos. With shimmering electronics filling the backdrop, there are few solos per se. Instead thick cohesive timbres overlap and are irregularly harmonized, quickening to a crescendo of undifferentiated vibrations; splintering into resonating sound shards; and then regrouping. Occasional asides by Nicole Mitchell’s impassioned flute, Jason Stein’s bass clarinet drones or Mazurek’s triplet-laden flutter-tonguing are secondary to the cumulative exposition.
Most distinctive of the tracks is “Three Blocks of Light”, but even here brief individual expressions augment the composition rather than illuminating on their own. Blurry waveform hums make the performance virtually opaque. Sound tweaks including trumpet slurs, lyrical flute chirps, portamento piano runs and saxophone split tones dig sound holes in the tune’s nearly impermeable textures. But it’s Adasiewicz ringing resonation which is most obvious.
Adasiewicz’s four-mallet, spherical vibrations are prominent on the other CD as well. But so are solos from other players, especially during Reed’s almost 34-minute title tune. All along the percussionist’s stylistic time-keeping – encompassing approaches varying from alarm clock-like ringing paradiddles to cumulative back beats and rim shots – solders together the disparate techniques into a throbbing narrative. Players form and amend collaborations, as when Tomeka Reid’s cello is first involved in contrapuntal sweeps with the clanking vibes, and then joins Josh Abrams’ bass to stretch an ostinato to its breaking point, finally culminating in broken-octave interface.
Her string slices or Reed’s blunt rhythms also set up other interactions such as those between reedists. Unlike his understated work on Stars Have Shapes, Ward’s snorting split tones and fortissimo reed bites are assertive here. His intense alto work is easily contrasted with the ney-like hocketing timbres from Mitchell’s soprano saxophone. Rondo-like, the two rip apart harsh split tones, then slow down to match staccato slurps and reflux, eventually stretching the tempo, as behind them Abrams’ twangs and Reed’s rebounds presage recapping the initial theme.
Creatively busy, Reed’s Loose Assembly proves to be loose only in its ability to accommodate an additional voice, but not in creative performance. As significant a statement as Stars Have Shapes, because of its smaller, looser presentation, Empathetic Parts offers a more fundamental view of each player’s talents – especially Ward’s.
Tracks: Empathetic Parts; I'll Be Right Here Waiting
Personnel: Greg Ward: alto saxophone; Roscoe Mitchell: alto and soprano saxophones and flute; Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone; Tomeka Reid: cello; Josh Abrams: bass; Mike Reed: drums
Tracks: Ascension Ghost Impression #2; ChromoRocker; Three Blocks of Light; Impression #1
Personnel: Rob Mazurek: cornet; Jeb Bishop: trombone; Nicole Mitchell: flutes and voice; Greg Ward: alto saxophone; Matthew Bauder: clarinet, tenor saxophone; Jason Stein: bass clarinet; Jeff Kowalkowski: piano; Jason Adasiewicz: vibraphone; Josh Abrams: bass; Matthew Lux: bass guitar; John Herndon and Mike Reed: drums; Carrie Biolo: gongs, vibes and percussion; Damon Locks: word rocker
— For All About Jazz New York February 2011