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Samuel Blaser: As the Sea


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: Samuel Blaser: As the Sea
Plenty has been written about musical camaraderie—the building of long-term musical relationships and their unmistakable impact on the evolution of a group. Few, however, discuss the inevitable impact of personal relationships behind the music. Times have changed, and few jazz groups tour for more than a couple of consecutive weeks; still, hitting the road for even two weeks is sure to mean plenty of "up close and personal" time amongst band members. Samuel Blaser's Boundless (hatOLOGY, 2011) was recorded during his current multinational quartet's first tour in 2010; two years later, with a couple more tours under his belt, the trombonist—along with guitarist Marc Ducret, bassist Banz Oester and drummer Gerald Cleaver—has reaped the considerable rewards that come from a group as comfortable offstage as it is on.

These rewards are immediately evident from the opening minutes of As the Sea. Like Boundless, Blaser's second recording with this group is a four-part suite, recorded live; unlike Boundless, which was culled from three separate performances, As the Sea comes from a single show, speaking to greater collective confidence and, at times, near-telepathic and empathic connection. "The music is quite different from the first record," says Blaser, "because things are more written. It's a little more complex rhythmically, too. But it's crazy, because I can play anything—a single note, even—and everybody will move with me. It's pretty intense."

Intense, yes; but not without the continual ebb-and-flow of tempo, dynamics and space that reflects a group even more capable, this time around, of patiently allowing the music to unfold as it will over the course of As the Sea's 51 minutes. If the music, at times, appears denser than might seem possible for just four musicians, it's the result of a group relentlessly committed to stretching the boundaries of its individual instrumentation. Blaser, in particular, possesses an inimitable and quite remarkable ability, for such a relatively young musician, to seamlessly blend perfectionist technique with an extended vernacular.

Blaser also demonstrates a deep understanding of the jazz tradition and a clear love of classical music—both in the broadest sense possible—combining knotty compositional form with incendiary improvisational prowess on "As the Sea, Part II," where an exhilarating, extended mid-piece duet with Cleaver—alluding, in spirit, to saxophone giant John Coltrane's legendary duos with drummer Elvin Jones—sets a high bar for the entire set, with Blaser's rich, pure tone and effortless multiphonic mastery matched by Cleaver's thundering, connected-at-the-hip potency.

Unlike the conservatory trained and university educated Blaser, Ducret is a self-taught musician; like the trombonist, however, the French guitarist has developed his own complex, boundary-averse language. In a career defined by unfettered musical vision and unrelenting eschewal of compromise, Ducret's hatOLOGY debut with Boundless seemed, in retrospect, to be an overdue inevitability. The guitarist's nearly one hundred recordings as a leader and guest—amongst them, collaborations with Tim Berne in Big Satan and Caos Totale, Bobby Previte in Latin For Travelers, and various projects with fellow Frenchman Louis Sclavis—have shaped an intrepid and unfettered instinct for what is right for the moment, as Ducret comfortably travels from clean-toned idiosyncrasies to brief rock 'n' roll moments during his breathtaking solo on "As the Sea Part II," while kicking in some overdrive for an even more visceral turn on "Part IV."

Blaser's relationship with Cleaver—an increasingly in-demand American drummer recruited by everyone from guitarist Terje Rypdal and iconic AACM reedman Roscoe Mitchell to pianists Craig Taborn and Matthew Shipp—dates back to 2006 and sessions for Blaser's more straight-ahead debut as a leader, 7th Heaven (Between the Lines, 2008). Here, however, his unfettered ability to combine color and pulse is a foundation upon which the entire quartet relies.

The Swiss-born Oester may be the least known of the group internationally, but with artists like Dewey Redman and Sylvie Courvoisier in his curriculum vitae—and work, alongside Blaser, in Swiss percussionist's Pierre Favre's Ensemble, last heard on Le Voyage (Intakt, 2011)—the bassist brings plenty of cred to the quartet, whether it's the subtle swing behind Ducret's solo on "As the Sea Part I" or his own strummed, plucked and muted feature at the start of "Part III."

Blaser has favored the lineup of trombone, guitar, bass and drums right back to 7th Heaven; of his quartet albums, only Consort in Motion (Kind of Blue, 2011) substitutes piano as a chordal instrument. But As the Sea represents the first time the trombonist has maintained a stable lineup between recordings. "There's a strong connection; it's become a very strong band," says Blaser. It's no surprise, then, that As the Sea capitalizes on Boundless' improvisational élan while placing the group in a more complex compositional framework.

Even more remarkable is that music this rigorous comes together with next to no rehearsal—a stark reality for many of today's touring musicians. With the increasing regularity of multinational—sometimes transcontinental—collaboration, the expense of bringing a group together for advance rehearsal is often simply not possible, though contemporary technology does allow for the easy sharing of charts and even music in advance. But the group itself has to come together very quickly. "I cannot afford to fly the guys in days earlier," says Blaser, "so before the first gig's sound check we just rehearse a few things. With this band, we know each other so well now that I trust I can put the music together easily."

It's that kind of trust that turns lack of rehearsal from disadvantage to advantage, lending it an exhilarating edge that comes from being placed in a new situation without any kind of safety net. Record producer/ambient music progenitor Brian Eno wrote, in his Oblique Strategies, "Honor thy error as hidden intention"; clearly a modus operandi for Blaser and his group. "Sometimes there are some very nice surprises," Blaser says, chuckling. "But everyone knows the material really well, so we always find a way to bring the music back at some point."

That this group can navigate Blaser's challenging composite of form and freedom with such effortless aplomb speaks to its growing chemistry, each member's ability to listen, and a collective musical background that extends far beyond the jazz tradition. "As the Sea, Part IV" comes closest to that tradition, with Cleaver and Oester's herky-jerky swing creating a shifting context over which Blaser solos with what is fast becoming a signature of near-unparalleled technical acumen. Blaser's focused sense of construction and lyrical undercurrent ultimately make perfect sense out of even the most seemingly skewed lines. "It's a very complex tune," Blaser explains. "There is a clear cue out of my solo, but it's atonal and very complicated, so you don't really hear it; I play a rhythmical thing—an Indian Tihi."

At a time when musical cross-pollination is so broad as to make nearly all music world music of a kind, it's still a surprise to hear Blaser reference everything from the complex rhythmic concept of the Indian Tihi that inspired "As the Sea, Part IV" and its rhythmic acceleration, to Richard Wagner's sweeping Ring Cycle, with "As the Sea, Part I" based on a tuba solo the trombonist heard in a performance of the second act of the composer's famous opera, Siegfried (1876). "It is a little bit more difficult to include improvisation in this material, because the writing is more specific," says Blaser, "whereas Boundless was more about very open lines." But any concerns about the challenge of blending freedom with Blaser's much more specific form disappear as the group magically coalesces at the start of "As the Sea, Part I," and navigates its detailed structures through the conclusion of "Part IV."

Blaser came to his instrument very young. "It's a legend in the family that I wanted to start with trombone when I was two. But I started at nine, couldn't go past third position and had to have a trolley to carry trombone because it was too heavy," Blaser recalls. From the youngest member of a jazz band at thirteen to playing in trumpeter Bert Joris' Swiss Jazz School Big Band in Bern, it was when he moved to New York in 2005 that "everything changed. I met Cleaver, Scott DuBois, Thomas Morgan...it changed my life."

Returning to Europe in 2009, the trombonist still spends considerable time in New York, but if The Big Apple remains a musical lightning rod for Blaser, his slowly evolving family of international collaborators—in addition to his ongoing relationship with Favre, also including American drummers John Hollenbeck and Gerry Hemingway, Brazilian-born/world traveler Malcolm Braff, Canadian clarinetist Francois Houle and French saxophonist Alban Darche—means that if no place is truly home, anywhere can be. Another significant signpost along a still-nascent path, and predicated on the musical and personal relationships forged by the 31 year-old Blaser in just a few short years, As the Sea represents both a powerful and profound predictor of even better things yet to come.

Liner Notes copyright © 2023 John Kelman.

As The Sea can be purchased here.

John Kelman Contact John Kelman at All About Jazz.
With the realization that there will always be more music coming at him than he can keep up with, John wonders why anyone would think that jazz is dead or dying.

Track Listing

As The Sea Part I; As Th Sea Part II; As The Sea Part III; As The Sea Part IV.


Samuel Blaser: trombone; Marc Ducret: guitar; Banz Oester: bass, acoustic; Gerald Cleaver: drums.

Album information

Title: As The Sea | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: Hat Hut Records

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