Let's presume it's not too obvious a question, almost a century since King Oliver taught Satchmo how to blow his soul out the end of his horn and say what he damn well felt like saying. Exactly what is the relationship between improvisation and jazz? Pianist Greg Burk tackles this question on Nothing, Knowing, with nine originals that investigate the tension between composition and improvisation with captivating results.
Supported by two veterans in stellar form, electric bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bob Moses, Burk navigates structured compositions, free improvisations, and pieces that move from one extreme to the other, taking structure as the springboard for freedom and improvisation as the gateway to form. The opener, "Old Souls," is a case in point, moving from a delicate, dawn-like refrain to a more frenetic freedom, before sliding gracefully back into the theme and ending with the satisfying inevitability of an intended destination. It's a beautiful demonstration of how, in the right hands, self-imposed limitations can make improvisation even more challenging and satisfying than complete freedom.
In terms of pure, spontaneous invention, however, the album's centrepiece has to be the nineteen-minute "Truth Be Told"a compelling showcase of Burk's quirky lyrical technique, which owes more to his former teacher Paul Bley than it does to other more aggressively radical pioneers like Cecil Taylor. Make no mistake, though, this tune flies by in a frantic, free jazz maelstrom, with Burk providing quizzical chords and a torrent of nimble, melodic ideas. Waves of intensity swell and subside until the tumult descends into a bluesy come-down.
Some of the shorter numbers highlight Burk's compositional eclecticism. "Look to the Neutrino" begins with roiling clouds of Improv before coalescing into an almost prog rock marching figure, while "Borneo Dreaming" conjures up an infectious exoticism anchored by a bass line not unlike Sun Ra's "Angels and Demons at Play," with chaotic jungle percussion and Burk searching inside the Steinway's guts for a lost civilisation among the strings.
On "Operetta," we find the intellectual crux of the CD in deceptively simple form, starting off as a breezy, upbeat bossa nova before Moses' rubato rhythm pulls it away from its moorings. Similarly, "Big Bird" is the closest this group comes to straight-ahead post bop, once again subverted and dragged out of the mainstream by Moses' unruly drum patterns. It's this tension between rigour and rebellionas the bass and piano skirt around the central theme while shadowing the drums out in left fieldthat encapsulates this set's comment on the role of improvisation in contemporary jazz and how sometimes it is only limitation that makes freedom worthwhile.
Now, take a glass of water. Hold it up to the light. See how the liquid fills the glass perfectly: amorphous, colourless, utterly adaptable, yet defined in its depth and shape by the rigid glass walls around it. Now pour that water out onto the ground, see how it runs away, uncontrolled. Not quite so beautiful any more is it?
Personnel: Greg Burk: piano; Steve Swallow: bass; Bob Moses: drums.