It takes a while to get a grip on a recording like this. After having spent such “a while” absorbing this sprawling 2CD set, I’m willing to claim that this is one of the most important documents of Jazz in the past ten years. It represents a virtuosic synthesis of composition and improvisation, and of conventional and unconventional timbres. Each of the participants is a seasoned improviser comfortable with a range of Jazz aesthetics, from the accessible to the abstract. The leader of this ensemble, Bill Cole, plays a large number of wind instruments from various traditions outside Jazz, including some fantastic reed instruments from Korea and India. Additionally, Cooper-Moore performs on a number of self-invented instruments that have rich voices, transcending the novelty trap that instrument invention is prone to fall into. The sort of timbral expansion within a post-Free Jazz aesthetic that is achieved here is simply a rare and wonderful thing. Cole takes solo after solo that allows a lifetime of immersion in Jazz to reveal itself through the extraordinary timbral resources of his chosen instruments. It has been widely observed that the vitality of current improvised music stems largely from players who are discovering new timbral and tonal possibilities on familiar instruments, from Evan Parker’s saxophone to Mat Maneri’s violin. Bill Cole’s playing takes this one step further by tapping into the possibilities offered by less familiar instruments, and the result is a paradise of microtonal delights. There aren’t too many recent examples that share this methodology, although the innovative work by The Far East Side Band is probably the most obvious one, and both projects have featured the accomplished tuba playing of Joseph Daley, although Daley’s role in Cole’s ensemble is not quite as prominent as it is in his work with Hwang, et al. This music also sits comfortably next to Adam Rudolph’s Moving Pictures and related projects, though Cole’s group is a bit more Free Jazz-oriented. Additionally, Korean Komungo player Jin Hi Kim and double-reed specialist Joseph Celli have an impressive body of work between them, especially the Jin Hi Kim-composed double-reed blowout “Piri Quartet” from 1995’s diverse Living Tones
(OODiscs). Other excellent examples of non-Western instruments being used in a Western aesthetic context include Warren Sender’s mind-blowing Antigravity ensemble, and the Northwoods Improvisers, although the latter’s records are not nearly as adventurous as the above examples.
The first piece on this set, “Struggles of Fanny Lou Hamer”, was revelatory in its first hearing. We find passages of circular breathing that go outside of a rhythmic framework, but have a structure based on an unforced flow from one phrase to the next, as opposed to a drone structure. We also hear multiple microtonal lines playing off each other without an underlying pulse, achieving results that might make more than a few composers of “contemporary classical music” quite jealous. After about 15 minutes without a drum kit, a section of confident post-Ornette Jazz comes through sounding as clear as a church bell. The remainder of the set is just as compelling. There is an astounding variety of aesthetics at play throughout, from “sound-based” to “melody-based” to “rhythm-based”, and even “harmony-based”, all sitting happily side-by-side. In this connection, it’s worth explicitly stating that this group can swing and groove in a pretty serious way at times. All the music is highly sectional, reflecting a great deal of compositional deliberation, and there are numerous solo and duo passages that give us a chance to hear the nuances of some of the unfamiliar instruments, or simply focus in on the familiar genius of William Parker. Additionally, there are passages of ensemble interaction that achieve the uplifting quality of great Free Jazz, where all the players form an emotionally meaningful whole and you can feel your spirit floating up into the air with the reed notes.
Disc 2 contains the 48 minute “Freedom 1863: A Fable”, which is broken up into 12 relatively short sections, all of which are substantially different from each other. Cole’s first solo section finds him reaching for the heights with a skittering, dancing, and ecstatic reed exploration. There are several moments, especially in “Introduction” and “Martin Luther King, Jr”, where the drums really come through with a detailed, clean, and powerful sound. In fact, the recording quality overall is top-notch.
There are moments when the piece fails to maintain a meaningful sense of continuity, such as the lackluster percussion duet in “Marcus Garvey”, which suddenly stops and is replaced by a seemingly unrelated (but quite beautiful) solo by Cooper-Moore on his Horizontal Hoe-Handle Harp. In general, though, the individual sections carry their own weight and the transitions are frequently smooth. The final section is especially effective, using insistent repetition to achieve an energetic climax. An exciting and important document.
Personnel: Bill Cole-Digeridoo, Sona Tibetan Trumpet, Hojok, Shenai, Nagaswarm, Bamboo Flute; Cooper-Moore-Flute and hand-made instruments: Mouth Bow, Horizontal Hoe-Handle Harp, Rim Drums, and Three-Stringed Fretless Banjo; Sam Furnace-Alto Saxophone and Flute; Joseph Daley-Tuba and Baritone Horn; William Parker-Acoustic Bass; Warren Smith-Trap Drum Set, Gongs, Marimba, Dunno Drum, and Rain Sticks; Atticus Cole-Congas, Bongos, Timbales, and Rain Sticks