After the relaxed polish of Charlie Mariano’s set, British horn players Rob Townsend and Chris Batchelor decided to give the audience a wake-up call. Together with three Finnish players-pianist Samuli Mikkonen, bassist Pekka Törmänen, and drummer Joonas Leppänen-they mixed up a dense brew of floating ambience, driving rhythms, focused solos and raw electronics. They generated a sweeping, electro-acoustic cloud of melody, sound and rhythm, as all the pieces segued into each other. At times their set was messy and loose-limbed but the result satisfied with its improvised feel and spirit of adventure.
The first note of the set, a brash electronic loop, made the audience and the musicians sit up and take notice. From there they moved into a laid-back swing that became “Arthur Blythe’s “Slidin’ Through”. After a floating transition, Don Cherry’s “Symphony for Improvisers” emerged, with Townsend taking a turn on soprano sax and Batchelor running his trumpet through an electronic mute. Mikkonen added snatches of melody, helping to create a tune that was more mood, sound and pulse than song.
Their set also featured original compositions by the Batchelor and Townsend, all of which alternated dark themes with more muscular grooves seemingly inspired by Miles Davis’s 70s work. Leppänen kept the pulse swelling up and down, while Törmänen supplied solid, insistent bass figures.
In addition to the pointed thematic statements on their horns, Batchelor and Townsend injected various sonic effects into the mix. Chanting tape loops, drones, and echo all helped to create a multi-layered sound.
With this sound they suggested many moods and directions simultaneously. Mikkonen’s introspective piano solos and intricate, fragmented comping balanced with the churning rhythm section and the echoing, processed ruminations of Batchelor and Townsend.
The unceasing electronic experimentation did sometimes make the music seem sloppy, and Törmänen had some sound problems with his bass that prevented it from being the thick low-end it should have. But keep in mind this group had only a handful of rehearsals, and their lack of rehearsal contributed to the adventurous, suspenseful nature of the music. They should be commended for their risk-taking.
As a kind of come-down after this sound exploration, they rendered Bill Evan’s “Children’s Play Song” in a lullaby-like manner, sending the audience home feeling peaceful, even cleansed. The performance was all about finding balance: between dense sonic outbursts and more lyrical musings; between electronic and acoustic sound; and between emotional expression and cerebral examination. Such balancing acts are hard to pull off, but on this night the group succeeded, and in the process refreshed the music’s and the listeners’ spirit, even if only for awhile.