Although he is well-accustomed to working in other settings, alto saxophonist Nick Mazzarella
is perhaps at his strongest in a trio format: specifically, the sax-bass-drums configuration that allows for both maximum harmonic freedom and focused rhythmic interaction. In 2017 his Meridian Trio (featuring bassist Matt Ulery
and drummer Jeremy Cunningham
) released Triangulum
(Clean Feed), an excellent free-bop outing with razor-sharp improvisations and engaging compositions. On Counterbalance
he's working with bassist Anton Hatwich
and drummer Frank Rosaly
. This unit goes back to 2008, so there's some deep history here. And it shows. Recorded live in Chicago in 2018, the fourth album by this accomplished trio reflects a decade of growth and development, with music that places a premium on the group's well-honed collective concept.
Mazzarella has potent range as an altoist, at times capable of keening intensity while at others reflecting a more subdued, tenuous fragility. The record's dynamic opener, "Phonetic," sees him producing long, extended upper-register wails while Hatwich and Rosaly surge alongside him, with an implied pulse rather than an obvious one, thereby allowing for substantial independence. But this isn't a free-for-all. All three players come together here brilliantly, with Hatwich's and Rosaly's focused contributions integral to the group sound, as the band proves adept at finding coherence amidst their liberties. The same goes for "The Puzzle," an even more energized cut, which charges out of the gate, Mazzarella soaring high, while Hatwich and Rosaly's expert "bend-don't-break" strategy succeeds wonderfully, with rhythmic fluidity that moves well beyond strict time yet never gets out of control. And to prove that the group can swing with the best of them, they offer up "Headway," with an enticing groove and some especially strong exchanges between all three musicians.
Just as interesting are the more reflective, mysterious pieces, such as "About Looking" or "Innermost," in which Mazzarella's approach changes dramatically. No flurries of notes pouring forth, as on "The Puzzle." Instead Mazzarella seems to agonize over each one. Hatwich and Rosaly provide perfect companionship, limiting themselves to their own sparse commentary, providing just enough to sustain Mazzarella on his quest for just the right expression. The delicate web that the group weaves on these tracks is just as compelling as their more demonstrative moments, and they clearly hold the audience rapt throughout, with a use of silence and space just as captivating as the notes that are played.
The strongest cut may be the album's title track, a six-minute extravaganza of group interaction, with Mazzarella's leaps, rushes, and sustained lamentations supported perfectly by Hatwich's arco bass and Rosaly's simmering rhythmic substructure. All three are in persistent rapport throughout, with listening skills sharpened to the finest point possible. It's an exceptional collaborative moment on an album that seems both a celebration of a decade's worth of work, and a hopeful foretaste of much more to come.