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Anna Webber's Simple Trio with Matt Mitchell & John Hollenbeck: Binary

Dave Wayne By

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One of a growing number of genre-crushing young artists working at the fringes of modern jazz and so-called "new music," Canadian-born saxophonist and composer Anna Webber has staked out some truly distinctive musical terrain with her all-star Simple Trio. If you're not familiar with Ms. Webber (who's worked with Dan Weiss, Jen Shyu, Ohad Talmor and classical composer John Luther Adams to name a few), you will certainly recognize her Simple Trio-mates: John Hollenbeck and Matt Mitchell. Kindred spirits in every sense of the word, Webber, Mitchell, and Hollenbeck are restless intellects whose multi-hued music continually pushes the outside of the envelope—both stylistically and technically—and whose off-the-cuff virtuosity makes the impossible seem easy. As a composer, Webber's devil-may-care approach places Thelonious Monk, Steve Lacy and Anthony Braxton on equal footing with Giacinto Scelsi and Györgi Ligeti. She seeks to blur the line between spontaneous and written-out composition, both sonically and as part of the music-making process. In this regard, Binary is a complete success.

The trio's second release, Binary is a worthy follow-up to their startling debut, Simple (Skirl Records, 2015). Much of it continues in the same vein: cerebral aleatoric passages suddenly erupt into funky jams, explorations of extreme dynamics juxtapose the barely audible with the very loud, crazy quilt sections which appear to be spontaneously improvised are—in fact—written-out heads. It's a wild ride. Once again, Mitchell and Hollenbeck suffuse Webber's knotty, twisted compositions with the sort of ease one would associate with a relaxed Sunday afternoon jam session. As tough and modern as Webber's creations are, there's a strong undercurrent of wry, puckish humor à la Braxton. Mitchell and Hollenbeck are on board with the composer on that tip as well.

Interestingly, Webber derives a lot of her inspiration from the Internet. This is hardly surprising given that one of the tracks here is titled "Meme." Webber has also leveraged online content in unexpected and uniquely personal ways. The series of pieces titled "Rectangles" were inspired by "WebDriver Torso," a cryptic YouTube channel. Other pieces were shepherded along using an app that converts speech into drumbeats. "Impulse Purchase" is a musical transliteration of Webber's own IP address, and the title track is based on a series of numbers and letters produced by a random binary digit generator.

The centerpiece of Binary is the 14+ minute-long "Impulse Purchase." After brief passages of solo saxophone and piano, the trio delicately sketches out the piece's first theme. Webber and Mitchell improvise jointly around well-placed percussion jabs which coalesce behind a second, related theme. Then Hollenbeck dons his John Bonham hat and delivers some absolutely pulverizing beats as the melody gets repeated in a series of metrically-modulated tempos. Webber's tenor gets progressively more woozy with each foray. A lengthy piano / tenor saxophone conversation follows. A third motif is introduced, which re-awakens Hollenbeck and the newly invigorated trio goes into full attack mode to bring the piece to a fearsome end. Two other long pieces, "Tug'o'War" and the title track, offer sonically contrasting glimpses into the trio's sound world. The former features Webber's flute—on which she has a lovely reedy tone—and Hollenbeck's numerous and varied metallic percussives. "Binary" starts out dark and elegiac, with Webber's mournful tenor overtones and moody piano. With drums whipping into a frenzy, it quickly gathers a violent sort of energy, only to be punctuated by these little compositional asides which shine through the storm like goofy rays of light.

The remainder of Binary is devoted to shorter pieces, chief among them six different sections of a piece titled "Rectangles." Most of Webber's "Rectangles" sound like math-rock played by jazz instrumentalists; they're modular pieces based on contrasting harmonic / rhythmic / melodic elements played repetitiously. Maximal minimalism, if you will. However, "1a" and "1b" are looser, almost free-jazz-like with Webber exploring saxophone overtones and Hollenbeck wailing away on the glockenspiel. Two moderate-length pieces round out this fascinating set. Both "Underhelmed" and "Disingratiate" are humorously-titled, and both are badass slabs of avant-funk driven by Hollenbeck's relentless drumming.

Binary is one of those rare albums that manage to be super-brainy, yet totally enjoyable from start to finish.

Track Listing: Rectangles 2; Impulse Purchase; Rectangles 3a; Rectangles 1b; Underhelmed; Tug O' War; Rectangles 3b; Binary; Meme; Disintegratiate; Rectangles 3c; Rectangles 1a.

Personnel: Anna Webber: tenor saxophone, flute; Matt Mitchell: piano; John Hollenbeck: drums.

Title: Binary | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Skirl Records

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