Free jazz has always defined itself more by what it is not than by what it is. With an embrace of complete freedom of form comes a nearly infinite realm of musical possibility that has continued to expand since its cultural relevance began in the early 1960s. As various interpretations arose, a sort of nonlinear historiography developed including, among others, the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane, the "small instruments" sound of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, the big band reconfigurations of Sun Ra and the cerebral impressionism of Cecil Taylor, to name a few. This list is limited of course, but it does represent a map of some of the approaches to the free jazz idiom.
It is rare when these distinct forms are combined, but on pianist Joel Futterman, drummer Alvin Fielder and saxophonist Ike Levin's Traveling Through Now, there is both an embrace of the approach as a whole and a respect for the music's rich history. In the skittering and choppy rhythmic interplay of "Primal Center," Futterman's piano exudes an energy and harmonic complexity not unlike Taylor while the aptly titled "Ascendence" features Levin sounding like Coltrane sometime between A Love Supreme (Impulse!, 1964) and Ascension (Impulse!, 1966). Fielder displays his talents on the loose percussive discourse conjured on "Connextions."
This is not to say that the group does not have their own sound either. The unit is comprised of true professionals who are not only practitioners of the form, but significant contributors to its current legacy. Fielder, a founding member of the AACM, has played with the likes of Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sun Ra and William Parker while Futterman has a strong affiliation with Taylor, saxophonist Jimmy Lyons as well as Joseph Jarman, "Kidd" Jordan and Richard Davis. Levin's tenure with creative poetry and jazz collective Positive Knowledge has not restricted him from working with straighter players including Von Freeman and Ira Sullivan.
The unit's individual sound is all across the album, with strong playing coming from all members. "Dance of Discovery," features Dolphy-like chromaticism from Levin's bass clarinet, is a soft ballad like piece whose feel is one of sympathetic and comfortable playing. The trio's ability to spontaneously compose these works is astounding. "Moment Dweller" sees Fielder keeping afloat the snaking horn lines of Levin and Futterman, who capably switches to soprano saxophone on the number. "Outertopeia" takes on angular approach on spiritual themes that jerk about with great mobility.
For a trio with such a history both together and individually, it is no surprise that Traveling Through Now is as good as it is. What is surprising is the group's ability to pull from so many sources without ever sounding like mere imitators. The result is an enlivened recording that both honors its past and points heartily toward the future progression of the medium.
Personnel: Joel Futterman: piano, soprano saxophone; Ike Levin: tenor saxophone,
bass clarinet; Alvin Fielder: drums, percussion.