Chris Speed / Mat Maneri / Craig Taborn / Erik Fratzke / David King

March 28, 2021

Compass Confusion

Pyroclastic Records PR 12

Dan Weiss Starebaby

Natural Selection

Pi Recordings P 186

Having established himself as a valuable collaborator with everyone from Vijay Iyer to Evan Parker in the improvised community hasn’t stopped keyboardist Craig Taborn from indulging his love for more beats-oriented music. At the same time he hasn’t abandoned his synergetic ideals with both these high energy discs more concerned with group propulsion than gaudy soloing. Although each CD exists in a post-Fusion universe, the distances between them are major.

For a start Natural Selection’s leader is percussionist Dan Weiss and Taborn is one of the two keyboardists along with Mat Mitchell, a long-time. Weiss associate. Furthermore, with the rest of the group consisting of guitarist Ben Monder and electric bassist Trevor Dunn, who have played with the likes of Mr., Bungle and David Bowie, this is probably the closest Jazz-affiliated musicians get to Heavy Metal. With Compass Confusion on the other hand, while Taborn still plays electric keyboards, the rhythmic textures of his compositions are tempered with Free Music and ambient tropes. His associates are violist Mat Maneri, tenor saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, bassist Erik Fratzke and drummer David King.

As a drummer’s session with electric keyboard buzzes and electric guitar flanges, Natural Selection almost literally hits the ground running and goes on from there. Throughout the energy is physical and almost visual as constant drum backbeats, combustible guitar echoes, electric bass buzzes and quaking electric keyboard washes vie for sonic supremacy. The brief respite comes on “The Long Diagonal” where an extended sequence of acoustic piano chording – which could be played by either of the keyboardists or Weiss – pulses alongside crossed timbres from drum pops and wriggling guitar hero-like distortions. “Accina” adds to this reevaluation as the processional piano intro contends with space-shronk guitar frails and a mid-section where tremolo piano patterns move upwards to express a restrained theme as the repeated vibrations from drums, electric keyboard, synthesizer and electrified strings pull it towards thickened density. “Head Wreck”, the album wrap up, confirms Weiss’ Fusion appetite. But as on other tracks, between jazzy electric piano resonation and cymbal clashes which face wah-wah guitar and thick percussion power, the question of whether Jazz-Rock or Rock-Jazz will be paramount is left up in the air.

The situation is less opaque on Compass Confusion. While King’s backbeats are as powerful as Weiss’s, the absence of guitar and second keyboard lightens the program enough so that airier themes are more prevalent. This doesn’t make the narratives any less potent with enough electric piano waves and juddering tones from all concerned present. But Speed’s bird-like clarinet trills and Maneri’s expressive glissandi make common cause with keyboard interjections to move most tracks chromatically. Still reed filigree and string extensions don’t prettify the situations as a protracted variation of hard-soft/loud-quiet timbres remain.

The best instance of this occurs on “The Science of Why the Devil Smells like Sulfur”. Irregular drum beats viola string slices and acoustic piano stops create a theme which is further propelled by repetitive piano chording and fiddle whistles. Finally resolved with intense, machine-gun-like drum rat tats tats and cymbal rebounds, squeaky fiddle runs preserve emotion as well as power. Avoiding solos, textures on the other tracks sweep in tremolo waves to the end. Taborn’s sophisticated command of the material is such that he’s not afraid to brighten a track like “Sargasso”. Straight-ahead, welling strokes from the viola follow a fluctuating introduction where the percussion output suggests a gamelan orchestra’s tuned gongs and metal bowl reverberation, climaxing with keyboard buzzes and drum slaps.

A varied program which pinpoints Taborn’s skills as an orchestrator and sensitive composer, Compass Confusion is an enjoyable, unforced group work. Those who want sounds buffeted with more vigor may aim for Natural Selection though.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Natural: 1. Episode 18 2. Dawn 3. The Long Diagonal 4. A Taste of a Memory 5. Today is Wednesday Tomorrow? 6. Bridge of Trust 7. Accina 8. Head Wreck

Personnel: Natural: Matt Mitchell (piano and Prophet-6); Craig Taborn (piano, Fender Rhodes and synthesizers); Ben Monder (guitars); Trevor Dunn (electric bass) and Dan Weiss (drums, tabla and piano)

Track Listing: Compass: 1. Laser Beaming Hearts 2. Dream and Guess 3. Compass Confusion 4. The Science of Why the Devil Smells like Sulfur 5. The Night Land 6. Sargasso 7. Sunsets Forever

Personnel: Compass: Chris Speed (tenor saxophone and clarinet); Mat Maneri (viola); Craig Taborn (electric piano and keyboards); Erik Fratzke (bass) and David King (drums and electronic drums)