Maintaining focus in free jazz seems like an oxymoron. By free, obviously, one assumes no rules, no shackles, and no restrictions. This is fine and dandy in theory; in execution, though, some do better than others with this musical autonomy. It might be free all right, but, is it music and, more importantly to us, is it even jazz?
Brooklyn Cantos, thankfully, is focused free jazz, adventurous music with a purpose. The Gold Sparkle Trio of alto saxophonist Charles Waters, bassist Adam Roberts, and drummer Andrew Barker plays host to the like-minded Ken Vandermark on seven original tunes. Vandermark, more than most contemporary musicians, constantly delves into this environment, where music pushes the boundaries of structure, seducing rigidity to mold new forms and styles. For its part, the Gold Sparkle Trio (also known as the Gold Sparkle Band) enjoys similar avenues; the group's previous albums, Earth Mover, Fugues and Flowers, and Nu Soul Zodiac, are as daring and delightfully unpredictable as anything from the Vandermark 5.
On Brooklyn Cantos, the moods and themes are diverse, as might be expected from these musicians. The opening number, "People's Republic," starts on a somber beat, at a sleepy pace that soon gives way to a ragged dance and screeching solos by Vandermark and Waters. The progression of the song recalls other Vandermark projects, with a slanted take on structure providing the tune's excitement. The two Ornette Coleman-like tunes, "'Burg Girl" and "Game Over," are wonderful bop kernels, popping and flying through the group's dense air of rhythm and melody. "Marcella Variations" is the album's best-realized piece, a mature work that does more with less hysterics and less fanciful technique, employing a simple, soulful path instead. Vandermark's bass clarinet and Waters' alto sax float and relax atop the languid pace of Roberts and Barker, a soothing, effortless sensation that does much to ease any remaining apprehensions of free jazz.
Brooklyn Cantos demands some artistic assumptions on its most challenging piece, the nearly thirteen minutes of "Architexture #12 (718)." It might be coincidental or not, but even here, where a nonlinear progression is clearly celebrated, the group's motions are hardly alienating. True, it can be dissonant at times, but the idea and its implementation remain clear and musical. The vast latitudes of this song have a way of intoxicating the mind, allowing the more solemn "Autumn Ever" to fully settle in with less listener apprehension. As with "Marcella Variations," the group does more in minimalist patterns here; this is uncomplicated, accessible music. The album's finale, "Carpet Quarterbagger," brings a street-fair-like joy with a pounding drumbeat and funky horn riff parading us to a raucous conclusion.
It might be too early to start handing out "best-of" praises for 2005, but Brooklyn Cantos is clearly the class act at this point. An accessible album that gives free jazz a good name is, in itself, a marvel in any year.
Personnel: Ken Vandermark: tenor sax, Bb, bass clarinet; Charles Waters: alto sax, Bb, Eb clarinet;
Adam Roberts: bass; Andrew Barker: drums.