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Samuel Blaser Quartet - As the Sea

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Artist: Samuel Blaser Quartet

Album: As the Sea

Label: Hatology

Review date: Apr. 11, 2013

Samuel Blaser Quartet - “As The Sea Part I”

Just two years old, this quartet led by young trombonist/composer Samuel Blaser continues to make some pretty fearless, intense, and wide-ranging improvised music. Hot on the heels of last year’s Boundless (a four-part suite assembled from three live dates) comes the fabulous live shot As the Sea (from Belgium, November 2011), another four-part suite, this one undistilled. While Blaser claims that the music on his sophomore release for Hatology is more fully composed than on its predecessor, in many ways it sounds quite the opposite, since the mercurial responsiveness of the musicians (returning are guitarist Marc Ducret, bassist Banz Oester and drummer Gerald Cleaver) is the music’s defining feature.

The more you get into it, however, the more you realize what he’s talking about: the organic way in which the composed material emerges (sometimes in precise rhythmic languages, elsewhere in fully realized unisons) is impressively evident in each phase of As the Sea.

It helps that each of Blaser’s mates, especially Ducret, is exuberant in locating the intersection of furious rhythmic intricacy with edgy, flinty techniques. It yields a slightly different series of communicative exchanges (sometimes wholly different idioms) than on the band’s first outing. And overall it makes for music that’s at once really visceral and quite subtle (an aesthetic juxtaposition that captures Blaser’s aesthetic cumulatively, as he ranges from furious churn to tense repose).

Soft tom patterns from Cleaver open things up in a spacious, unhurried fashion. In some sense, it’s typical of a live improv set, with the soft-to-loud, sparse-to-dense dynamic seemingly a fairly predictable one. But the longer Blaser lingers with muffled intervallic material and Ducret with little chirrups, you realize that they’re not especially interested in blowouts or riffing. Rather, Blaser sets things up so that smaller gestures are given maximum impact, as when he deploys a portamento smear against flinty, spare group musings (it’s something he returns to regularly, and the contrast he achieves in so doing looks back to earlier eras of tromboneliness, not just Albert Mangelsdorff but Tricky Sam, too).

Just when it seems the music wants to explode, Blaser’s thematic material emerges. The methodology recalls some of Tim Berne’s long-form excursions, where the notated stuff rises slowly and organically, and here the slow, rotund, skulking theme of the first and second parts is so effective in its insinuating fashion. Along the way there are plenty of great little sub-group scuffles and conversations: some great Oester/Cleaver proto-swing alongside Ducret’s drowsy, moaning guitar; low flatulence, jittery bustle, and clean guitar midway in the suite; and a savagely good, deep funk duo for Blaser and Cleaver, where the trombonist plays around marvelously with layered tempi.

The suite grows in power in its second half, as the quartet reaches cruising altitude. And it’s here that, though Blaser continues to trade in scored material, the subtleties of the group’s rhythmic language emerge most clearly (for those interested in this kind of thing, much of this material is shaped by Blaser’s recent, intense study of Indian music, taking especial inspiration from the Tihi technique). Hear this in a heated Blaser trio in the third part, with burrs and overtones and darting phrases amid the sweet counterpoint (Oester unbowed in his slow pace, Cleaver heated in contrast). But it’s also all over the concluding section, where Blaser cribs from a Wagner tuba obbligato from Siegfried. From there, the group springboards into a pretty exhilarating conclusion: well structured, chock with precise rhythm and line, and some righteous exuberance from each player, perfectly navigating that balance between intricacy and release.

By Jason Bivins

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