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Free Base - The Ins and Outs

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Artist: Free Base

Album: The Ins and Outs

Label: Emanem

Review date: Jul. 4, 2005

Bow to the Baritone

The baritone saxophone suffers a curious scarcity as a viable free improv implement. Plenty of players reach for the tenor, and alto and soprano aren’t far behind in the popularity polls. But for some reason, their weightier sibling doesn’t hold the same cachet. Maybe it’s the hulking size. Or by proxy, the prospect of adapting extended techniques to such a massive apparatus. Whatever the reason, aside from the work of Mats Gustafsson and a small cadre of others, the baritone is usually relegated to a backburner. The trend is a vexing proposition for fans of the big horn and a magnetizing draw when it comes to the music of Free Base.

Paralleling the drug slang of their name, this trio of saxophonist Alan Wilkinson, bassist Marcio Mattos and drummer Steve Noble, skip the dilutants of charts and tunes and instead burn down to a pure and potent expository core. Their improvisatory interaction avoids niceties from the start, hatching from a coarse, atonal source that stresses raw energy over delicate structure. “Trepid” denudes the implied timidity from its title as Wilkinson blows guttural gusting tones atop a sparse current of scraped and hammered counterpoint. Probing deep into the curvilinear metal of his sax with expansive lung-fulls of breath, he fashions foghorn-sized girth to frequently gnarled lines. Fractured stop-time rhythms and punishing string-strumming from Mattos give the music additional ferocity and obdurate propulsion.

“Sea Frett” finds its legs on Mattos’ electronics laced arco patterns. These collide with Noble’s cymbal washes in oily oceanic waves, later ignited by sparks from the bassist’s flammable, rosin-glossed bow. Wilkinson’s ensuing multiphonics contain layers of muffled vocalese, tongue and teeth wrestling mightily with reed. Mattos and Noble take their partner’s chest-puffing exhortations in stride and converge as a canny and responsive team. Each anticipates the others’ intent with an intuitive accuracy that makes for thrilling, if occasionally injurious moments amidst the grind and clatter.

“Absolute Zero” unveils Wilkinson’s other instrument, his work on alto proving just as piercing and pugnacious in its preference for caterwauling cries. Noble and Mattos respond in kind, erecting another jumbled barrage of string pops and cymbal crashes that leave behind both welts and bruises. But it’s not all browbeating and gut-punching, as the three open up into a field of micro-level industry mid-piece. The drummer turns to small percussive devices and bowed cymbals in a manner akin to Paul Lovens, and Mattos coaxes rubbery fibrillations from his bass while Wilkinson traces straight-faced sonorities from his smaller reed, almost lyrical in design. Later tracks like “Kissing the Shuttle” and “I Wak On” reorient the action back to less ornamental and genteel blowing. Both are stops-pulling tours de force for more bellicose baritone flanked by stampeding bass and drums.

The music here was distilled from 100 minutes of studio tape. That leaves nearly a half hour of extras on the editing room shelves as testament to the trio’s combined desire to shave away excess. Lean and mean, Free Base works as the living embodiment of less is more and still remains true to the promise of its album title in covering all the bases.

By Derek Taylor

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