Frequency's story is as much about the players as the music. The group is made up of former 8 Bold Soul members Harrison Bankhead and Edward Wilkerson, Sun Ra collaborator Avreeayl Ra, and Association for the Advancement of Creative Music (AACM) co-president Nicole MitchellChicago jazz luminaries with substantial pedigrees.
The group's eponymous release for the Chicago indie Thrill Jockey label is a challenging debut. At times the band doesn't seem to set itself apart from other AACM outfits led by Roscoe Mitchell, Muhal Richard Abrams, or even Anthony Braxton (though Frequency is less heady than much of Braxton's catalog). And like comparing any eclectically inclined punk outfit to The Clash, Frequency can't help but draw comparisons to the Art Ensemble of Chicago. But while the group may do little do develop its own distinct identity on Frequency, the record does serve as an outstanding showcase for Mitchell's playing, if nothing more.
"Pitiful James introduces Frequency. The tune begins loosely, Ra's percussion delicately and elegantly accenting the melody from Mitchell and Wilkerson, who here plays clarinet. Quickly Ra and Bankhead settle into a groove and give room to first Wilkerson, then Mitchell, and both turn in inspired solos.
Wilkerson's tenor playing fits in right alongside the likes of the aforementioned Abrams or Henry Threadgill. Throughout Frequency, Mitchell's flute work stands out most, however. Her solo on "Take Refuge is captivating, her flute effortlessly cutting through Ra's frenzied and cymbal-heavy percussion. The drummer's turn at soloing just before the second head on "Take Refuge is likewise attention=getting.
"Satya, composed by Ra, who here pulls out various hand percussion, is subdued at the beginning but picks back up about three minutes in. Halfway though, it gives way again to kalimbas and bellsand chanting. You can either love or hate moments like thisas a fan of Mitchell's flute work, I find these softer episodes to be the high points of the record, even if the chanting is a bit distracting.
This song shows the difficult dynamic within Frequency. Mitchell's flute is sounds best in these softer moments, but it suffers when she attempts to keep up with Wilkerson's chops-busting bouts of passion. Even within Wilkerson's own playing, there is a tension. Soloing on earlier tracks on Frequency he is a frenzied free jazzitarian; later, on "The Tortoise and "Optimystic, Wilkerson is thick-lipped blues.
"Portrait of Light presents another lighter moment, and again Mitchell steals the show, dancing here with a much more complementary Wilkerson. The playfully amusing but hardly inspiring "Fertility Dance manifests Art Ensemble-like excess, and "From the Other Side is just too much.
Overall Frequency is above average music from accomplished artists who should need no lengthy introduction. With recordings by artists like Sticks and Stones, the Chicago Underground and Fred Anderson already in its catalog, Thrill Jockey's release of another great Chicago-based jazz project seems natural.