Artists including John Abercrombie and Bill Evans have said that the best free music still requires a reference point. Whether it is a harmonic centre or rhythmic conceit, it needs something to provide a focus; after that, the players are free to expound as extravagantly and with as much abandon as they can muster. And that's where British saxophonist Elton Dean's latest disk, Sea of Infinity is a mixed success. While these four collective improvisationstwo quartet pieces, one duet and one duet augmented by some questionable beat poetrywork on a purely visceral level, only one of them really demonstrates that reference point which gives the players' improvisations meaning and context.
Still, as a stalwart free player on the British jazz scene since the late '60s, Dean is certainly capable of extended play, and he provides the most meaning on Sea of Infinity. The two quartet pieces, featuring long-time musical partner Mark Hewins on digital guitar, bassist Marcio Mattos and drummer Tony Bianco, are chaotic, anarchistic pieces that would represent little more than four men flailing about, if it weren't for Dean's strong sense of development and, to a lesser extent, Hewins' reasoned telepathy.
There are some interesting textures, mostly from Hewins' digital guitar, which provides light washes and chime-like dulcet tones; but Mattos and Bianco spend most of their time on these two extended studio piecesboth clocking in at around twenty minutes eachcreating a maelstrom of sound, a turbulent but ultimately monotonous backdrop over which Dean and Hewins can expound.
More successful are the two middle pieces, both recorded live, especially the longer "Boat'ing," which finds Dean and Hewins in a more peaceful duet setting, akin to the work they did on also-live Bar Torque (Moonjune, '01). While there is little reference point other than a specific harmonic centre, the more ambient nature of the piece makes for a welcome contrast. Hewins, never a particularly strong soloist but an interesting textural player, even quotes from Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," showing that while the music here is largely European in flavour, there are some links to the American tradition. Dean plays well off Hewins' bell-like tone, again demonstrating a strong ability to maintain interest over the long-haul.
Equally tranquil but less successful is the short "Sibyling," with Sibyl Madrigal citing some beat poetry that adds absolutely nothing to the proceedings; if anything, Madrigal's talk of "watching my butt because it's my strut," and liking her jazz "hot, wet and sticky" is simply too blatant. There's nothing wrong with innuendo, but Madrigal's poetry has all the subtlety of a ball-peen hammer. And it's unfortunate, because Dean and Hewins, once again, create a lush ambient backdrop that would make for pleasant listening if it weren't for Madrigal's laughable attempts at verse.
Sea of Infinity is, consequently, a mixed bag that is only partly successful, but despite its shortcomings, it continues to demonstrate Dean as a consequential player on the British free jazz scene.
Personnel: Elton Dean (alto sax, straight alto, saxello), Mark Hewins (digital guitar), Marcio Mattos (double bass on "Steam Rooming," "Beer Can and X"), Tony Bianco (drums on "Steam Rooming," "Beer Can and X"), Sibyl Madrigal (voice on "Sibyling")