Paul Dunmall / Howard Cottle / Olie Brice / Tony Bianco

January 17, 2017

Underground Underground

SLAM 2101

History, even history of the arts, assigns the most space to any area’s best-known practitioners. Others are almost ignored, even if some of their work is on the same level or even surpasses that of their preeminent colleagues. Improvised music is no exception. Which is a long-winded way of asking why isn’t tenor saxophonist Howard Cottle better known? Equivalent to visual artists who labored in the shadows of Picasso, Dali and others, but who produced work that measured favorably with theirs, Cottle goes mano a mano with tenor saxophonist Paul Dunmall and doesn’t suffer in comparison.

Cottle, who has been a member of Dunmall’s Moksha Big Band as well as Chris McGregor’s Brotherhood of Breath and The Jazz Warriors, introduces his notes from the underground in such a way that this session’s six tracks careen from Free Bop to Free Jazz to Free Music. Dunmall, who composed all the tunes, had the John Coltrane-Pharoah Sanders sessions as model, but with Cottle’s input the tenor conclave includes memories of Johnny Griffin-Eddie Lockjaw Davis or Gene Ammons and Sony Stitt.

Ferocious intensity is the best description of the Blitzkrieg-like mode of sonic attacks from the two saxophonists. But like members of a winning sports team who provide ancillary tasks needed for success, the reedists’ progression would be impossible without the skills of bassist Olie Brice and drummer Tony Bianco., Londoner Brice moves between Jazz and Free Music alongside the likes of saxophonist Tobias Delius and pianist Achim Kaufmann, while Bianco, a transplanted American, worked with saxophonist Elton Dean and in a Coltrane-saluting duo with Dunmall. Best known for his membership in Mujician, Dunmall is one of the UK’s most accomplished saxophonists, comfortable in many idioms.

From the get-go the four appear perfectly balanced, with Brice setting the pace with walking thumps, Bianco adding every manner of cymbal and drum accents and the two tenors producing phrasing that range from corybantic to calm, with frequent excursions into glossolalia and altissimo. Sometimes the reedists’ playing is separate, sometimes it’s harmonized and sometimes it’s in double counterpoint. Put back to back distinguishing one from another is difficult even when the solo order is indicated, since one saxophonist is usually playing obbligato to the other. A track such as “Sun Up” for instance, ends a volatile reed excursion into the stratosphere with virtuosic asides of slurps and smears, with the two exiting in lockstep as if they were a music hall dance duo. Even Cottle’s own feature “Sacred Chant”, where he outputs timbres with arpeggio affirmations and lower-pitched slurs Dunmall is still right behind him like a concerned parent unable to let his child go. By the finale though, Cottle works his tone ever upwards, so that in the penultimate phrases, it coalesce into a magisterial reed display.

This contrast between august and abstract, which also affected Trane’s latter work, is the leitmotif of most of the performances here as well. Most telling is the extended “Timberwolf”, which begins with swelling Mingus-like pumps from Brice and encompasses back-and-form vamps that bring in timbres reflecting mellow lyricism in the centre and by the finale has more textures crammed into a line than would spill from an overactive beer tap. Spraying foaming textures from the horns the climax moves both horns past Coltrane, Sanders and even Ayler into pure abstraction.

A prime specimen of what used to be called Ecstatic Jazz; the figure who most deserves to rise from this Underground Underground is Cottle.

–Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Underground Underground 2. The Inner Silence was too Loud 3. Sun Up 4. Timberwolf 5. Hear no evil, play no evil 6. Sacred Chant

Personnel: Paul Dunmall and Howard Cottle (tenor saxophone); Olie Brice (bass) and Tony Bianco (drums)