Listeners familiar with drummer Jim Black's work alongside Ellery Eskelin, Tim Berne, and Dave Douglas were surprised by his solo debut, AlasNoAxis , back in 2000. The outright bulk of the backbeat-driven opus stood in contrast to Black's other jazz-oriented efforts, which were marked (and continue to be marked) by a more liberal dynamic approach. The drummer's short attention span and fluidity of motion allow him to integrate styles on the fly and constantly shift his center of balance, but the solo effort focused on a more limited vision. Habyor represents the third installment in the series, and it's a decidedly testosterone-rich return to form.
AlasNoAxis (the band, now in its second reunion on wax) features saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, guitarist Hilmar Jensson, and bassist Skuli Sverisson. These players have worked with each other long enough to step forward without hesitation, giving Black's compositions the muscle they need to work. Rather than relying upon subtlety and implication, the group dives right in and pounds through blocks of explicitly organized sound, giving flesh and blood to deliberate themes and vamps. The full-bodied energy of these ten pieces derives in large part from Jensson's gnarly, distorted guitar and Sverisson's insistent, throbbing bass. Black plays relatively tight-fistedly, holding back on the carefree flights of fancy that have characterized his work elsewhere; this is serious and focused stuff.
The most remarkable part of this music is the way Chris Speed integrates his voices on tenor saxophone and clarinet. His tone is often raw, fragile, and tender, a marked contrast to the general muscularity of the music. The vulnerability of his lines introduces a needed human dimension, a sense that all is not necessarily as sure as it seems. Otherwise, Habyor might fly a little too high on adolescent energy, whether channeled through sheer headbanging thrash ("Hello Kombiant"), jarring contrast ("Rade"), or tectonic shifts ("Talk About").
Whether you call this jazz or (art-/prog-/post-) rock, it's heavy on structure and improvisational space is relatively limited. That gives it heft and momentum but limits its mobility. These four players are smart enough to know the boundaries; what proceeds on Habyor is their hard-working effort to fill space with an enduring, almost anthemic pulse that takes some time to leave the air when the music has ended.