While unbridled intensity may have entered the jazz arena during the avant-garde explosions of the '60s, decades still remained before it would be channeled into fifty alternative outlets. One of those, the punk movement of the late '80s and early '90s, brought a number of "rock" listeners across the already-thin boundary into energy music, fueling a whole new generation of performers both inside the "downtown" scene and across the country.
Guitarist Nels Cline has frequently been associated with this particular flavor of musical expression, and it's with great portent and glee that he joins in for Active Vapor Recovery, the recording debut of trombonist Scot Ray. Cline (and brother Alex on drums) brings that sharp-but-dirty crystalline edge to the music, laying out an open (or quite often pockmarked) field for the other improvisers on the record to explore. This one is extremely funky, thanks to the combined efforts of Alex Cline and bassist Steuart Liebig. Ray rides it like a cowboy.
Take "Above Breath," for example. It gets going with a burbling, warbling trombone solo from Ray, before things settle down and Steuart Liebig's bass guitar signals the onset of a brief episode of New Orleans funk (dig the bass/drums interaction here). Cline's progressive rock theme soars atop the groove, signaling an abrupt departure into screeching energy.
The rest of Ray's composition plays with this alternating combination, dwelling more on the contrast between the parts than any ostensible similarity. Three times around and the kiddie stuff is over. Cline's distorted low-end power chords signal post-apocalyptic moans from the leader and violinist Jeff Gauthier, full improvised frenzy that dips in and out of the funk but never loses its punch. A little bass/bone interplay and it's back to home. Very, very nice.
The New Orleans theme returns again on "In Cleveland," a funky frolic through the city which rides on Alex Cline's drums and Ray's punchy, playful theme up top. Though it passes through a series of changes, the piece never loses its childlike charm. A nice solo by Gauthier gives it a heaping of full-bodied flavor.
Fifteen minutes of "Trouble With Sugar" start out in spacey, open free jazz territory with a few brief calls to open synergy. Seven minutes into the song, Liebig pushes things up and out with a friendly harmonized melody that smashes directly into a wall of noise three times before it can stretch out into a full-on group harmonized theme. Eventually that persistent, beautiful funk comes back; there's no substitute for fun.
And so it is through this study in contrasts that Ray builds a greater whole from a sum of quite discordant elements. The funkier and rockier parts take maximum advantage of the group's testosterone-rich energy, but the quintet does quite well in open spaces, too. Ray's composing is the skeleton upon which Active Vapor Recovery hangs. Beyond that, it's wide open.
This exceptional record is a certain top ten pick for 2003.
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Personnel: Nels Cline: electric guitars;
Alex Cline: percussion, drums;
Jeff Gauthier: electric violin;
Steuart Liebig: contrabass guitars;
Scot Ray: trombone.