Mark Helias: The Struggle Continues, Dance of the Soothsayer’s Tongue & Strange Unison
Mark Helias is a consummate bassist, a musician whose abilities as both collaborator and soloist have few peers. He's covered terrain from the more interactive branches of structured jazz to free, with special stops along the way that include a kind of free funk. These three recent releases represent Helias early in his career, as group member and as composer/leader.
Helias was the youngest musician on hand in 1982 when tenor saxophonist Dewey Redman recorded the recently reissued The Struggle Continues with pianist Charles Eubanks and master drummer Ed Blackwell. The genre is free bop, with Redman and Blackwell touching on their long association with Ornette Coleman (and in the Coleman alumni band Old and New Dreams).
The connection is evident in the rapid bounce of "Thren" and the concluding "Dewey Square," a loosened version of the Charlie Parker theme. Redman covers a good deal of terrain here, applying his distinctive soundsomehow at once round and hard-edged, a rare achievement in envelopingto the deep funk of "Turn Over Baby," the floating lyricism of "Love Is," the very Trane-like lilt of "Joie de Vivre" and the down-right Ayler-ish swirls of"Combinations" (resemblance is the easiest mode of description, but Redman regularly shifts formal tactics while invoking fellow tenorists from Willis Jackson to Charles Lloyd). The group is an ideal place for the younger Helias, who seems to fuse perfectly with Blackwell in the playful yet surging rhythms, as well as adding fleetly inventive solos to "Thren" and "Joie de Vivre."
Trumpeter Dennis González' NY Quartet also includes Ellery Eskelin on tenor and Michael TA Thompson on percussion. Dance of the Soothsayer's Tongue is only in part recorded "At Tonic," tape failures at a fine live performance requiring supplementary studio recordings by the trumpeter and drummer to fill out the CD.
The core of the disc is the extended, five-part "Afrikanu Suite," which works through permutations of the ensemble, from duos to full quartet to unaccompanied solo. It's distinguished by its intensity and the inventiveness of its detailing, particularly in the interactions between Eskelin and Helias. Helias is especially adept at creating atmosphere, sometimes forging compound textures with simultaneous bowing and plucking. The music from Tonic is framed by González/Thompson duets that are marked by González' intensely felt lyricism and his gorgeous, brassy sound, a resonant, elemental trumpeting that can suggest Louis Armstrong, a feat among trumpeters associated with free jazz.
Open Loose is Helias' own group, a working unit with drummer Tom Rainey and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby that's devoted to the bassist's compositions. As with the best tenor-bass-drum bands, the focus is on interaction rather than showcasing a saxophonist and the results on Strange Unison are consistently inspired.
The group's forté is a taut, slightly boppish feel, but it's striking how far back and how far forward it can work in the tradition. The gorgeous blues of "Blue Light Down the Line" has Helias' rock-steady line anchoring the turbulent moan of Malaby's horn and the shuffle of Rainey's drums. When Helias solos, that startlingly articulate low register really comes to the fore, notes bending with a guitar-like expressive clarity in a zone you don't expect to hear it. Beginning near the opposite pole from that traditional blues, the piece "Irrational" seems at times to be a series of disconnected sounds that seek their own order, with remarkable sonic similarity between Helias and Malaby.
As different as the methodologies of individual tracks are, there's a consistent dynamic throughout, Helias' bass a central, structural presence that seems to register both empathy and order in the midst of Malaby's tumult and turmoil and Rainey's vibrant beat and explosive dismantling of expected patterns. Open Loose is one of the most consistent bands currently active, reflecting Helias' adroit balancing of order and spontaneity.
Tracks and Personnel
The Struggle Continues
Tracks: Thren; Love Is; Turn Over Baby; Joie de Vivre; Combination; Dewey Square.
Personnel: Dewey Redman; tenor saxophone; Charles Eubanks: piano; Mark Helias: bass; Ed Blackwell: drums.
Dance of the Soothsayer's Tongue (Live at Tonic)
Tracks: Reaching Through the Skin; The Matter at Hand; Dance of the Soothsayer's Tongue; Soundrhythmium; Afrikanu Suite Parts 1-5; Archipelago of Days.
Personnel: Dennis González: trumpet; Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone; Mark Helias: bass; Mike Thompson: drums.
Tracks: Graveling; Blue Light Down The Line; Sonic Rights; CBJ; Illustrate; Circling Listen; Johns And Marks; Irrational; Silent Stutter.
Personnel: Mark Helias: bass; Tony Malaby: sax: Tom Rainey: drums.