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Free Fall - Gray Scale

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Artist: Free Fall

Album: Gray Scale

Label: Smalltown Superjazz

Review date: Feb. 11, 2011

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the formation of Free Fall: Chicagoan Ken Vandermark on clarinets with the Norwegians Ingebrigt Håker Flaten on double bass and Håvard Wiik on piano. The three named the group after the classic album by Jimmy Giuffre, as its instrumentation mirrored that of the clarinettist’s trio with pianist Paul Bley and bassist Steve Swallow. The group Free Fall was never intended to be a tribute to Giuffre and has never played any of his compositions.

Gray Scale is only the fourth release by Free Fall in their years together, no doubt a reflection of how busy each of them is with countless other projects, including Vandermark 5, Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, Håvard Wiik trio, Atomic, The Thing and Scorch Trio. In contrast to the fiery music of some of those groupings, the three members intended Free Fall to be a “chamber jazz environment.” Initially, they played their own compositions, but on their 2005 album, Amsterdam Funk, they started to include free improvisations. Gray Scale is the first to exclusively feature improvised material.

If the absence of a drummer and that “chamber jazz” tag raise expectations of a formal, sedate set, the opening track, “Lividus,” immediately blows them out of the water. Right from the start, all three players are in full flow, simultaneously improvising at speed, barely drawing breath. Together, they create something as close to a wall of sound as one could reasonably expect from three acoustic improvisers. The initial impression is that Vandermark’s clarinet is at the fore, but repeated listening reveals an equal three-way exchange in which no one dominates or solos. Their decade spent recording and touring together is obvious in the cohesion of the piece – these guys know each other’s playing inside out.

The album is not all heads-down, full-tilt playing. Across the nine tracks, there is variety in mood and tempo; Vandermark does not dominate but is prominent throughout, playing both B flat and bass clarinets. “Griseus” is more sedate than the opening three-way encounter, being a feature for piano and clarinet. It opens with dramatic chording from Wiik that sets the tone and gives a structure to the piece. Vandermark plays a series of short solo interjections, gradually building momentum, culminating in a sustained passage of play that brings the track to a fine climax.

“Ravus” (these track titles must have been picked from a biological taxonomy?) opens with sustained, pulsating bass clarinet and piano chords, giving it a brooding air of menace. All three players are again involved, overlapping rather than playing simultaneously, with the contributions from each one ebbing and flowing. The closing track, “Fumidus,” is dominated by lower frequencies from all three, with arco notes from Håker Flaten underpinning the whole soundscape; only the clarinet breaks out of the bottom-heavy assemblage, its soaring notes conveying a sense of lightness and freedom.

Overall, Gray Scale hangs together well, with every track repaying repeated listening. Other than its instrumentation, the music bears very little resemblance to the Giuffre trio, sounding more like that group’s music filtered through the developments that have happened to free improvisation in the intervening years. Giuffre joined the great band in the sky in 2008, so we cannot ask him, but he should have been proud to have this group named after his trio’s album.

By John Eyles

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