August 16, 2016
Starting late in the past century and moving speedily into the new millennium the acceptance of Free Music has been such that what was formerly a so-called difficult subsection of Jazz and notated music has become a standard part of many musicians vocabulary. Improvisation is now taught at the post-secondary level, with symposia and revues dedicated to it
Acceptance doesn’t mean popularity however. While many musicians give lip service (sic) to the concept, few commit most their career to free playing. Observing profound improvisational strategies used by the MMM Quartet compared to some others is like comparing the exertions of young composition students to the achievements of Les Six. None of the veteran four are experimental music dilettantes. Plus, as another indication of the application of aleatory texture, not one was ever a straight-ahead Jazz musician. Alvin Curran, who plays piano, synthesizer and samples here is an academic and so-called classical composer, best-known for his membership in Musica Elettronica Viva; guitarist Fred Frith, now teaching at Mills College, is associated with Avant-Rock bands like Henry Cow. Over the years saxophonist Urs Leimgruber moved from the Jazz-Rock band OM, to concentrate on avant sounds alongside the likes of bassist Barre Phillips. Concurrently after specializing in the interpretation of compositions by John Cage and others, bassist Joëlle Léandre plungd full form into Free Music, hooking up musically with other explorers from pianist Irène Schweizer to reedist Anthony Braxton
With the audacity of Navy Seals storming a terrorist’s hideout, the four figuratively hit the ground running on “Belem”, the first and longest track. Blending stubby rumbles from the double bass; almost ceaseless guitar string strumming; split tones forced through the saxophones’ body tubes, bent-note piano comping; with machine-like oscillations seeping into any exposed space, the result is simultaneously solid and spongy. Subsequent pressurized bowing from Léandre extrudes the viscous foam tones that cement slabs of improv from the others into a structure. Sampled voices and bubbling flanges from Curran initially splash with graffiti-like textures on the sound edifice, but a combination of guttural reed snorts and swelling staccato string pumps keep the glued narrative from splintering.
This mercurial do-see-do continues throughout the rest of the disc with the quartet members changing positions as frequently as square dance partners. For instance Léandre’s swaggering deep-toned sweeps are in the foreground, to retreat following jet-plane-like amp vibrations from Frith, with both withdrawing behind Leimgruber’s processed circular breathing. Percussive rebounds from the synthesizer program provide the continuum.
Unexpectedly lively folksy dance-like rhythms bring the program to the end on “Alfama”. Produced by blending piano chords, string squeaks and sampled verbal nonsense syllables the lively carnival-like theme confirms the quartet members’ multifold skills. Like carnival medics who camouflage their first aid, training underneath clown makeup, they excel in both roles: as technical masters who can sophisticatedly shatter supposed instrumental birders; and as genial exemplars who produce lighthearted cadences if they choose.
Furthermore their effervescent almost effortless dexterity may explain part of Free Music’s appeal to many.
Track Listing: 1. Belem 2. Millsmont 3. Bario Alto 4. Maxwell Park 5. Alfama
Personnel: Urs Leimgruber (tenor and soprano saxophones); Alvin Curran (piano, synthesizer and samples); Fred Frith (guitar) and Joëlle Léandre (bass)