In 1982, after five albums in ten years, Swiss free-jazz quartet OM called it a dayits four members, Christy Doran
, Fredy Studer
, Urs Leimgruber
and Bobby Burri
going their separate ways. A supposed one-off reunion in 2007 to open an exhibition on the youth movement of the 1960s and 1970s led to a successful series of festivals appearances on home turf. Those concerts resulted in the live album Willisau
(Intakt Records, 2010), a return to OM's improvisational heartland, and signalled a renewed lease of life. It's About Time
, however, marks the band's first studio album in forty years. But is OM 2020 a different beast? Yes, and no.
In essence, the band named after John Coltrane
's posthumous album OM
(Impulse!, 1968), remains true to its instincts, with formal sketches the preludes to collective improvisation. The spirit of Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders
simmers in saxophonist Leimgruber's trademark squeals, whistling and overblowing free-flight, which infuse the music with wild edgesones marked, however, by extremes of intensity. Doran too, veers between susurrus strum and pedal-skewed snarl, while Studer juggles driving pulse and stormy percussion. Burri, who bows his double bass to moody effect, is no less an agent provocateur. His electronic manipulations steer the music into the realms of Noise, though there is also subtlety in the crackling static and drone-like textures.
Where the music has evolved is technologically, with Doran and Burri's sound-scaping carrying a more contemporary bite than in days of yore. Studer's ingenuity, too, incorporating bowed metal at one point, also brings a greater percussive element to the quartet than at any other time since Weather Report
's Dom Um Romao
graced the band in the late 1970s. Each member is, in effect, a percussionist and at times it is a challenge to distinguish quietly whistling saxophone from crying cymbal/bowed strings, or six-string feedback from electronic rustling; this is particularly true on the more abstract excursions such as "One Bare Branch" with its restless, sci-fi ruminations, and the eerie "Nowhere," which sounds like an ill wind disturbing the bones of some ancient ghost ship.
The music is not without groove, with metronomic bass and drum the backdrop to Doran and Leimgruber's nerve-shredding dialog on "Like A Lake." The quartet whips up a storm on "Perpetual-Motion Food," which morphs from grungy alt-rock to spiralling free-jazzthe two worlds colliding spectacularly as caution is thrown collectively to the wind. There are shades of electric-era Miles Davis
on the title track, which toggles between loose abstractionunderpinned by a faint, though inescapable pulseand outré jazz-rock where Doran and Leimgruber's cut and thrust is propelled by Studer and Burri's industry.
Despite the title, "Covid-19 Blues" is a heady exercise in abstract sound-designall electronic feedback, chittering saxophone and pulsing drone. "Fragments"a typically gnarly and episodic Doran compositionbristles with energy, the guitarist's punchy riffing and Studer's crashing cymbals ushering in unfettered improvisation from Leimgruber. "String Holder," a tense, minimalist foray, curiously embraces an extended pocket of silence but fails to gather any sort of momentum or direction. That it feels like a misstep may have something to do with its position at the end of the set, but that is perhaps a minor quibble.
Potent and boldly unconventional, It's About Time
proves beyond a doubt that OM remains a vital force in contemporary jazz and improvised music. Together, Leimgruber, Doran, Studer and Burri may be embarking on the most exciting chapter of their story yet.
Like a Lake; Perpetual-Motion Food; It’s About Time; On a Bare Branch; Covid-19 Blues; Fragments; String Holder.
Bobby Burri: devices; Christy Doran: devices; Fredy Studer: percussion, bowed metal.