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Robert Burke, Tony Malaby and Mark Helias: Head Under Water

Troy Dostert By

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A heralded veteran of the Australian jazz scene, saxophonist Robert Burke has never been one to limit his artistic reach through idiomatic complacency. Just within the last couple years, he has collaborated with pianist (and fellow Australian) Paul Grabowsky on Gravity Project (Apollo Sounds, 2018)—an intriguing East-meets-West endeavor that merged traditional Japanese music, jazz, hip-hop and electronica—and has teamed up with Stephen Magnusson on Barlines and Beyond (Jazzhead, 2017), another blending of Eastern and Western traditions, this time between jazz and Indian classical music. Somehow he has also found time for another of his preoccupations, freely improvised music—of which his latest, Head Under Water, is especially representative.

Here, Burke gets to play alongside two of the most well-documented musicians in the free-improvisation/avant-garde scene: saxophonist Tony Malaby and bassist Mark Helias. All three have the boldness of vision, and chance-taking sensibility needed to make this kind of project succeed, and it doesn't take long to perceive their synergy, as one of the album's lengthiest cuts, the opener "Immersion," allows all three the chance to toss out ideas and possibilities that the others can pursue, build upon, or disregard as they see fit. The result is a particularly animated conversation, one in which the substance never gets lost amidst the attention-grabbing moments, as can sometimes happen in less-disciplined interactions. And it really is a conversation among equals. Helias is just as integral to the proceedings as the horn players: whether he initiates a swing rhythm to get the music bouncing or develops quick ostinatos to comment upon Burke and Malaby's lines or spins out elongated, arco-based phrases to lead into a more ruminative mode, he is always looking for ways to contribute to the collective spirit.

With sixteen separate tracks, ranging from brief, under-a-minute sketches to longer excursions, there's a lot to take in. Fortunately, the three have plenty of ideas, and they share a commitment both to close listening and to maintaining a tenuous connection to the jazz tradition. With song titles like "Commitment," "Engrossment," or "Enthrallment," the players announce their intention to stay in close contact throughout. The longer pieces do provide more room for development, as a piece like "Bond" explores a number of registers: restrained, chamber-like passages juxtaposed with more insistent, jubilant exclamations, and even a bluesy lick or two. The shorter pieces, by contrast, offer more concentrated exchanges, but staying within the album's overall character of focused, thoughtful improvisations which only rarely give way to histrionics. "Involvement" is especially potent, at just two-and-a-half minutes of a rich, musical dialogue that possesses an almost composed-sounding lyricism. Even the album's most untethered track, "Captivation," with its anguished, turbulent cries from both saxophonists, ends with a note of melancholy and a graceful finish from Helias.

Although Burke's genre-bending projects might be more conceptually complex, there's a deeply satisfying directness to a record that gets right to the basics of pure, unmediated improvisation. Head Under Water offers more than enough evidence that Burke has a lot to offer in this capacity.

Track Listing: Immersion; Commitment; Plight; Bond; Engrossment; Involvement; Captivation; Engagement; Fascination; Raptness; Intentness; Enthrallment; Attention; Saturation; Lost; Absorption.

Personnel: Robert Burke: tenor and soprano saxophone; Tony Malaby: tenor and soprano saxophone; Mark Helias: bass.

Title: Head Under Water | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: FMR Records

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