Music can be remarkably deceptive. By careful placement of instruments, a small ensemble can sound much larger; notes can be implied where none are found. And while space is clearly a fundamental with Sonny Simmons, Michael Marcus and Jay Rosen’s experimental group, Cosmosamatics, what is most conspicuous is how two saxophones and percussion create a compelling sound. It is not only full enough without the benefit of either a bass to hold down the bottom end or a chordal instrument to provide some harmonic context, but varied enough to maintain interest throughout a nearly one-hour program.
The first two Cosmosamatics discs did have a bassist, creating a more conventional ensemble sound. What prompted them to eschew the instrument for Cosmosamatics Three and instead go for a pared-down sound is unknown, but the result is surprising. No chaotic flights of totally improvised music here; every piece, instead, has a contextual focus—a theme, a rhythmic concept, a harmonic basis—giving the trio reference points that keep the interest level high and the self-indulgence quotient low.
Rosen carries the rhythm, loose and free, while at the same time maintaining a firm groove throughout. “Futura” has an African feel; “Tonal Magnitudes” swings hard; “Bring on the Funk” is, not surprisingly, a shuffle-based funk workout; and “Twelve Seasons of Love” is a tender ballad. Each piece has a distinctive harmonic motif that sets the stage for the improvisations to come. Simmons and Marcus, through use of close and open harmonies, counterpoint, and sometimes just plain assuming a support role, deceive the listener into hearing things that are often not there. There is something liberating about not having either a bass or chordal anchor; there is enough structure to give broad differentiation to each piece, but enough space to provide the players with complete freedom to do with the material what they will.
Between Simmons' alto and English horn, and Marcus’ baritone and saxello, there is a lot of coverage. And while the baritone certainly compensates, at times, for the lack of bass, one is just as likely to find a supporting line being played on saxello or English horn; expected roles are reversed with the support being played, as often as not, over the top of the solo rather than underneath.
For an album where improvisation over a solid yet somehow liquid foundation is the key, there is remarkably little showboating. None of the players leans towards excess; instead, no matter how oblique the proceedings get, the crux of the material is always kept close to the fore. Cosmosamatics Three demonstrates that the best freely improvised music still has a root, a loose framework that provides the players with a common point of convergence.
This recording is available from Cadence on the web.
Personnel: Sonny Simmons (alto sax, English horn), Michael Marcus (baritone sax, saxello), Jay Rosen (drums, percussion)