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Muhal Richard Abrams / George Lewis / Roscoe Mitchell - Streaming

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Artist: Muhal Richard Abrams / George Lewis / Roscoe Mitchell

Album: Streaming

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Mar. 20, 2007

There’s a tendency for jazz musicians of a certain age to convene supergroup sessions. Usually haphazardly conceived and hastily executed, these records are often considerably less than the sum of their parts, with lots of laurel-resting and self-satisfied in-joking. This new recording by three deans of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians is exactly the opposite kind of record. It’s a wonderful document of the considerable improvising powers of pianist Abrams, reeds wizard Mitchell, and trombonist/computer specialist Lewis (they all play percussion too). But it’s also a testimony to these musicians’ vitality, their refusal to rest contented with their past achievements. More of a way forward than a synthesis, this is one powerful session.

Their strengths are, by this point, well known and documented. Abrams is able to cobble together riffs and unexpected lyrical flurries into his own piano architecture; Lewis remains one of the finest trombonists alive, a deadly legato technique combined with tailgating chortles and whinnies as well as his electronics; and Mitchell’s saxophone combines near austerity (his ability to pare down ideas and hone them at length) with amazingly heated outbursts. One tends, however, to have a certain number of expectations with these musicians: that there will be some paint-peeling free improvising, some moments of nearly incomprehensible abstraction, and possibly the odd moment of wheezing humor. These expectations are both met and flouted in extremely satisfying ways here. This set of five free improvisations, whose inspiration came from a 2003 festival date, is wonderfully rich and varied.

You get dizzying contrapuntal passages, where each player’s capacious technique and imagination are proudly displayed. The opening “Scrape,” for example, is dense like a bagatelle but expansive in its length and its improvisatory freedom. Lewis’ garrulous playing is, as always, a perfect foil for Mitchell’s dry, almost self-referential language.

The music has a vast dynamic range, with Abrams and Lewis diving into the depths on occasion (as happens in the opening minutes of “Soundhear,” with its pounding lower 88s, bells, and spectral software). What’s really impressive, though, is not just the space and the restraint of these improvisations – as satisfying as those qualities are – but the way in which this music builds not only on the traditions of the AACM (little instruments, chamber improvisation, “environmental” playing, and so forth) but also manages to incorporate the texture-based, laminal improvisation infrequently associated with this lineage. Hear this on the intense, throbbing “Bound,” for example. Lewis has always had an ear out for this stuff, of course, and Mitchell’s occasional explorations of repetition and minimalism certainly stand out (albeit in an obsessive way). But to hear Abrams getting in on the game (with bell, bamboo flute, and other instruments) is a marvel. Of course, for those seeking the more-or-less expected, just consult the wild trombone/piano duet that opens “Dramaturns” – all pirouetting and swan-diving – and thereafter morphs into a spiky noisefest. Or cue up the title track, which closes the disc and is the closest to the sort of rambunctious freeplay one might expect.

Having digested this one for a few months now, I’m confident it’s one of the best jazz/improv records of 2006. In fact, I would confidently cite it as evidence that jazz – whatever we mean by that maligned term – is alive and thriving. Fantastic music.

By Jason Bivins

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