It’s tempting simply to call Townhouse Orchestra the Sten Sandell Trio plus guest. After all, the pianist’s working group (with bassist Ingebrigt Haker Flaten and drummer Paal Nilssen-Love, the Nordic Parker/Drake engine) is all here, along with frequent collaborator Evan Parker. For their sophomore Clean Feed release, they give us two discs (at around 45 minutes apiece) of live burning from a February 2007 evening in Oslo.
It would be churlish to say that Parker always sounds like Parker, since the great saxophonist has never hewed too closely to the Bailey-ite dogma of simply playing what one wants while effectively not responding to what other players are doing. Rather, it’s more fair to say – and this generous, emotional, spacious music makes this clear – that Parker continues to work and rework basic elements of his sound, to test assumptions and ideas in differing contexts. So with Sandell’s scalar constructions and deconstructions, Parker explores his recent obsession with the lower registers of his tenor (where he sounds like a cross between Brotz and Newk, except that he always sounds like Parker) in a way that makes perfect sense, as if he’s digging in not so much to deflect the volley of blocks and shapes continually hurtling from Nilssen-Love’s kit or Sandell’s motivic playing but more to wend his way into their complex language.
Sometimes I think I’ve heard enough of this kind of grouping, but I always find something quizzical, provocative, surprising, or even beautiful when there’s this level of commitment and empathy. There are some wonderfully reflective exchanges between Sandell and Parker throughout, and I just love the way Sandell is wont (at the most surprising junctures) to construct dizzying overlapping lines that sound midway between a mid-1960s Monk solo and the kind of thing early Hans Reichel might have played if he’d played piano. The second set is more ragged, but also filled with more space, even some moments of brooding (an early piano/bass discourse of delicate pizz and trinkle-tinkle) and near-pulse that creates abundant tension.