In the liner notes to this unique recording, violinist Graham Clark explains that his trio's idea was to "produce some beautiful and interesting music without having written anything beforehand. This is a 'warts and all' recording."
Maybe, but it is largely wart-free. Clark, bassist Jon Thorne and drummer Milo Fell are remarkably attuned to one another. Clark, as the lead voice, is a consistently melodic and pleasingly inventive violinist. Like the pianistics of his old boss Keith Tippett, occasionally his lines recall folk melodies. Always they are tonal and catchy. On "System X" he plays with some long tones as Fell pounds out replies, but that is about as ear-stretching as this disc gets. This is a disc to play for someone who asserts that free improvisation can never be conventionally beautiful or immediately pleasing music for those who are not looking for a catharsis or an experience of high art.
Moreover, this trio is groove-heavy: "Bang On!" and "Dagobert" are funky (on "Dagobert" listen to Clark wind polyrhythms around the beat with bursts I would describe as Ornetteish except for the fact that this man can really play violin). "Second Thought" is bright. "When in Rome" is rattling and bouncy; Clark again briefly recalls Ornette at the beginning, but quickly plays lines far beyond anything Mr. Harmolodic's violin ever dreamed of.
All three musicians are masters of their instruments. Clark is everywhere on his violin, but he never loses Thorne or Fell. I searched for Billy Bang and Leroy Jenkins in his sound, and while they both no doubt deserve nods, Clark is no one's man but his own. On "Lonestar" he and the bassist weave a lovely ballad that, despite its unsettlingly abrupt ending, I was going to pick out as the highlight until I got to the other ballad, the title track "Isthmus." On this track Clark's stated intention to bridge "a gap between free improvisation and jazz" (!) reaches its apotheosis.
On the more adventurous side is "Buffalo Wings," where Fell drums out a tricky palette for Clark to work; he navigates it back to swingville with particular aplomb. "The Secret Shortbread" has Thorne working over a powerful ostinato pattern courtesy of Thorne.
Fresh and pleasant from start to finish, Isthmus is a new look at what top-flight musicians can accomplish with free improvisation. Highly recommended.