The clue is the name. Take a handful of musicians, place them in front of an audience and say "ready, steady go." Since starting Agile Experiments in 2015, multi-instrumentalist Dave De Rose has marshaled dozens of musicians for his sonic experiments, whereby small combos play entirely improvised one-hour gigs. Alive in the Empire, the fifth release in this vinyl/digital-only series, captures four of contemporary music's most progressive figures in a concert at the Empire Bar, Hackney, during the 2019 London Jazz Festival.
It's a mouth-watering line-up. Joining De Rose on drums are double bassist John Edwards (Evan Parker, Peter Brötzmann etc), synthesizer wizard Dan Nicholls (Strobes, Squarepusher), and saxophonist/electronics musician George Crowley (Can of Worms, Yazz Ahmed). An eclectic combo on paper, what unites these four musicians are their fearless approach to music-making and a healthy disregard for boundaries. The forty-odd minutes culled from the original hour-long performance are an exciting melange of pulsating rhythms, spacey synth, echo-drenched saxophone and assorted sound effects. Think The Comet Is Coming meets Sun Ra and you're in the ballpark.
De Rose and Edwards make a formidable rhythm team; lithe, adventurous and loathe to coast. Extraordinary, the range of sonorities that Edwards pulls from his strings on "Alive I," using his bow percussively and melodically, plucking and bending the strings to conjure deep pulses and eerie sirens. Here, De Rose's driving groove forms the bedrock as saxophone wails distantly and synthesizer creates a sci-fi wall of sound. These basic elements run throughout the record's seven parts, though each conveys different atmospheres, where grooves, the density of collective sound, and the intensity in the playing, wax and wane.
De Rose's drumming runs the gamut from explosive free jazz ("Alive II") and drum 'n' bass ("Alive III") to softly pattering brushes ("Alive VII"). Invigorating African rhythms on "Alive VI" propel the quartet to some of its most visceral and emotive playing, but even within the most tumultuous passages there are surprisingly subtle touches from all. On "Alive V," with drums and bass locked into a solid groove, and Crowley coaxing long, echoing phrases from his alto saxophone, Nicholls instead paints soft, otherworldly colors, sounding like Sun Ra's cosmic ice-cream van. On the intro to "Alive IV" static crackles gently like rain. At other times, it's hard to disentangle percussive chimes and tinkling from deft electronic effects.
Alive in the Empire is a powerful statement from musicians keenly attuned to the tides, ripples, swells and undercurrents of their ever-evolving music. For fans of improvised, experimental music, and especially for those who also happen to be vinyl junkies, this one comes highly recommended.
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