Cellist-fronted bands are still an uncommon currency in creative-improvised music. Daniel Levin hasn’t let the stunted history of his instrument in the idiom dissuade him from taking the lead. Bacalhau documents a concert set by his working quartet in Portugal during the summer of last year. By that point, the group had been together nearly eight years and trumpeter Nate Wooley, vibraphonist Matt Moran and bassist Peter Bitenc were jointly-geared to their colleague’s chamber-rooted designs and directives. A strong ensemble rapport is certainly in evidence across the entire program, with Levin ceding as much space as he occupies and coming up with a concert performance that also registers as a cohesive album.
The layered theme on the opening “Looken” is a lost sibling to Eric Dolphy’s “Straight Up and Down.” A comparison to Dolphy’s classic Blue Note session is a good one for the quintet as well, with Levin’s cello often aping the phrasing and agility of an alto reed. Bitenc sometimes plays the straight man to Levin’s strings, as on “Bronx #3” where a sturdy walking line serves as an anchoring agent to a full-bore horsehair assault from the leader. The roles reverse on the bassist’s “P’s Jammies,” where his prowling pizzicato plies an aggressive lead vamp answered and embellished by his comrades. Wooley evinces a comparable breadth, bouncing from lyrical open-bell playing to harsh crenellated shrieks — and he still manages to make it all sound musical.
Levin’s compositions aren’t reticent when it comes to breaking down the band into component capsules. The roving contrapuntal patterns of “Dock,” “Oh Really” and “Knickerbocker” result in a balance of breathing room and incisiveness. Two duos explore texture-oriented playing in more explicit terms. The first pairs Wooley and Moran in an exploration of brassy drone patterns and quavering bowed-plank harmonics. Levin and Wooley converse on the second in flurried scalar exchanges that milk the most of their disparate instruments’ tonal ranges. At nearly 13 minutes, “Soul Retrieval” is the slow-smoldering centerpiece of the set and a nakedly-emotive opportunity for all four men to stretch out to the audience’s audible appreciation.
The salted codfish-constructed font for the cover script is another pithy analogue to the set: Long-gestating, deliciously rich material that can cause mild indigestion if devoured too fast or in excess.