The idea of the "Zero Sum Game" originates in economic game theoryin essence a situation in which gains or losses made by one participant when combined with those of all other participants sum to nil. So the cake is finite and if one person takes more, less is available to others. Guitarist and composer Ant Law
has structured this album to fit the concept, citing the balance the pieces strike between the dense and dissonant improvisations of tracks like "Parallel People," with the simpler single instrument improvisations of say "Prelude/Waltz."
Whether this works in jazz is arguable but, presumably, the theory would hold for editing down a session to fit the length of an album or CDand we could all come up with examples where the self-indulgence of one musician's improvisations effectively reduced the finite time available for the other members of the collective! Thankfully, there are no such issues here, while this is a slow burner of an album that initially gets the attention for its overall feel, it progressively beguiles as greater depth and detail is revealed.
The first example of this that springs to mind is the shimmer with which Law's guitar enters the mix on the title track beneath Michael Chillingworth
's sax around the two- minute mark, rippling its way through combinations with the band. Part of this is due to the striking guitar sound that Law adopts perhaps owing something to his pioneering use of a "Perfect Fourths" tuning system, on the subject of which he is a published author. Intended to create unique harmonies, those of us who are not jazz scholars can only judge on the results, and these are invariably wonderful. Law has a rare ability to keep control in his playing, using his contributions to enhance the overall piece rather than cutting through it with the sadly all-too-common frustrated guitar hero shapes of many of his peers.
If the more complex compositions on the record have a studied thoughtfulness, this is never dull or overbearing. Law is clearly aware of the risks, acknowledged by the apparent caution against taking music too seriously of "Triviophobia." That piece is good enough to work on its own terms, however, enhanced as it is by the performances from Law and Michael Chillingworth in particular building on the gentle swing and atmospherics. Of the more complex pieces "Leafcutter," perhaps a reference to Polar Bear
's Leafcutter John
, is a highlight, its multiple rhythms at times seeming about to morph into the sort of disco cymbal pattern that would grace a Tom Moulton remix! "Monument" is different again, the initial guitar and reed atmosphere developing into what, in places, sounds a little like a tense black and white spy movie chase through the darker recesses of London. Sections of this piece hint at a freer, more experimental, path but never at the expense of engagement with the listener. The watchwords are atmosphere and texture rather than, say, the attack of a Peter Brötzmann
It's a great band too, coping well with whatever Law throws at it, whether that be the cerebral pieces or the more straightforward. Ivo Neame
's piano is, in particular, fantastic especially his solo on "Blues" that is a highlight of the collection. He also makes a particularly noteworthy contribution to "Waltz," where his solo balances restraint and hints of the further out. Whirlwind's early proposed release schedule for 2015 includes a slot for Neame's follow-up to 2012's Yatra
(Edition) in October and he certainly sounds in good touch based on his performances here.
Ultimately the aspect of the collection that lingers longest in the memory is the way that the musicians feel connected and simply just fit together. These are in all likelihood difficult pieces to play given how they constantly unwind and shift rhythmically, but it is not straightforward to spot where the written ends and the improvised begins. This is surely the mark of a great collective, even if the corollary is that it proves jazz can go beyond the "Zero Sum Game" concept. By blending individual instrumentation and contributions into a collective sound greater than the sum of its parts, Law inadvertently disproves the theory. Nonetheless it's a small price to pay for such an enjoyable and recommended 70 minutes of music.