Alexander Hawkins Ensemble: All There, Ever Out (2012)
It has been the Holy Grail of jazz since its inception: to carve out the perfect balance between the written and the spontaneously invented. While All There, Ever Out may not be the definitive statement, English pianist Alexander Hawkins has taken a bold stab at a new version of the equation, combining composition and improvisation in exciting and unpredictable ways. A rising star on the London scene, oft times in the company of saxophonist Evan Parker or drummer Louis Moholo-Moholo, Hawkins has also held his own with visiting avant luminaries such as trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, and reedman Joe McPhee, this last liaison heard to stunning effect on Oto (Bo Weavil, 2010). He builds on the considerable promise of his debut No Now Is So.... (FMR, 2009) but surpasses it, demonstrating greater assurance and clarity of intent throughout All There, Ever Out's nine cuts.
It helps that the gifted lineup is unchanged and, by now, well familiar with Hawkins' modus operandi, thoroughly inhabiting the leader's idiosyncratic constructs. The strategies are varied. Some pieces revel in catchy tunes, while in others the script is obscurely referenced, but often manage to sound both contemporary but at the same time redolent of the wider jazz tradition. At times they recall a chamber ensemble (at the beginning of "Elmoic"), a deranged organ trio ("AW/LJ (Differently)") or even a minimalist slow motion hymn (the concluding "So Very, Know").
Free form invention is a critical part of the mix, allowing the ensemble's component parts to shine. Bassist Dominic Lash and cellist Hannah Marshall enjoy a bracing duet to introduce "Ologbo (Double Trio)," moving from skittering scrapes to a sprightly walk to usher in the jaunty theme. Later in the same piece they unite again to buoyantly support the bop-ish marimba of Orphy Robinson, a veteran of the Jazz Warriors, the seminal all black London-based big band from the mid-'80s. Hawkins himself takes the honors on a teasing introduction to "Elmoic" in which Thelonious Monk meets Cecil Taylor meets stride.
What's more, the group sounds like it is having fun, undercutting any hint of improv austerity by dint of playful interaction, hinting at Hawkins' off-kilter themes, as on "Tatum Totem III," where references to the uninflected eighth note line, reminiscent of Anthony Braxton's Ghost Trance Musics, surface through the offhand group interplay. Even "(Untitled Free Improvisation)" displays the same virtues as the pianist's arrangements: a devil-may-care attitude to multiple layers of intersecting activity at multiple tempos, corralled by Javier Carmona's nervy, tika taka percussion. Guitarist Otto Fischer's "Marta," the only other cut not from the leader's pen, also extends the tricksy atmosphere, playing pass-the-parcel with a simple motif against a backdrop of spacey ambience. There's so much music here, that it defies description, leaving the pleasure of the quest to the discerning listener.
Track Listing: Ologbo (Double Trio); Tatum Totem III; Owl (Friendly)/A Star Explodes 10,000 Years Ago, Seen By Chinese Astronomers; AW/LJ (Differently); Ahab; (Untitled Free Improvisation); Marta; Elmoic; So Very, Know.
Personnel: Alexander Hawkins: piano, Hammond B3 organ (4); Javier Carmona: drums, percussion; Otto Fischer: electric guitar; Dominic Lash: double bass; Hannah Marshall: cello; Orphy Robinson: marimba; Kit Downes: Hammond B3 organ (9).