Alexander Hawkins Ensemble

Step Wide, Step Deep
Babel BDV 13124

A fine, forward-looking session, Step Wide, Step Deep is also a step forward for pianist/bandleader Alexander Hawkins. Working almost exclusively with Hawkins-composed material, the sextet is attuned to the most advanced expression without ignoring Jazz’s bedrock swing. Organized around three chordal instruments – Dylan Bates’s violin and Otto Fischer’s guitar as well as Hawkins’ piano, taut arrangements prevent the tracks from sinking into gauche sentimentality or excessive placidity.

Hawkins who has experience working with rhythm masters like drummers Louis Moholo-Moholo and Harris Eisenstadt is helped by the powerful, but disciplined beats of versatile percussionist Tom Skinner. Also on board are Neil Charles, whose refined double bass steering doesn’t preclude some Pop Foster-like slapping, plus reedist Shabaka Hutchings, who brings his free-contemporary-Caribbean inflections to bear here. Overall the high-energy program depends on tempering individual solo spots with sophisticated chromatic functions which break up the beat without sacrificing excitement.

The tunes appear to be organized so the chameleon quick changes from Bates – who can move from folksy, to metallic to dance-like in a semi-demi quaver – and Hutchings –whose triple-tongued clarinet riffs and more balanced tenor slurs suggest different persona – help solidify the narratives.

Case in point is “MO (-Ittoqqortoormiit)” – meaning unknown. Although Bates’s playing would never be confused with that of Leroy Jenkins or Billy Bang, after a folk-like introduction his flashing spiccato and razor-sharp skitters join with Skinner’s ruffs and smacks to attain a polyphonic fervor. Hawkins’ theme, which is both nuanced and solid, keeps the exposition on solid ground with passionate tremolos that dip into the instrument’s lowest registers and cross handed keyboard voicing. In contrast, Hutchings’ clarinet lines on “Boabab Constellation” sound a lot more Bosnian than Bajan, with Bastes’ dyspeptic staccato sweeps and Hawkins’ Bop-as-nursery-rhyme chording adding to the polyphony. Meanwhile the drummer concentrates on the backbeat as the bassist swells and sweeps bass lines along the bottom. Elsewhere Hutchings’ reed-biting tenor sax angling shows up, most notably on “Listen/Glow”. Yet his defiantly opposite contribution to this somewhat mainstream melody detracts a bit from its almost visible physicality. Bates’ muscular stopping does a better job connecting here.

All in all though, there’s little to prevent the session being defined as a pace-setting CD of advanced improvised music. Since Hawkins has already shown his skill in solo, duo and quartet contexts, perhaps more writing for, and playing with, larger ensembles is in order.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Step Wide, Step Deep - Space of Time Danced Thru 2. Forgiven Only Words Once 3. MO (-Ittoqqortoormiit) 4. Listen/Glow 5. Advice 6. Assemble/Melancholy 7. Boabab Constellation

Personnel: Shabaka Hutchings (clarinet and tenor, saxophone); Dylan Bates (violin); Alexander Hawkins (piano); Otto Fischer (guitar); Neil Charles (bass) and Tom Skinner (drums)