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Jim Black: Swell Henry & Habyor

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From a musical history that stretches back to their Seattle youth and tenure together in many projects, saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed and drummer Jim Black have both emerged as bandleaders and composers and still draw on each other's talents. With their groups yeah NO and Alas No Axis, respectively, they have mined different musical territory to forge distinct sounds, despite overlapping personnel that also includes bassist Skuli Sverrisson. On their newest releases, they show a parallel focus on crafting songs, not merely platforms for improvisation.

Yeah No
Swell Henry
Squealer
2004

Speed's Swell Henry expands on sonic elements first introduced on 2000's Emit , with guest accordionist Rob Burger and keyboardist Jamie Saft replacing Black's melodica. They add rich texture, round the sound of the jagged rhythms and fill the space around Speed and trumpeter Cuong Vu's tight unison lines. Burger does this effectively on "Last Beginning," when Sverrisson and Black jolt a rocking groove as Speed and Vu's traded extrapolations build intensity. The rhythm section propels "Born in the Air," featuring another lively exchange between Vu and Speed's clarinet, which alternately mirrors and finishes the line. Black's off-kilter lope on "Camper Giorno" cushions the infectious unison horns and Saft's mellotron washes. Sverrisson's hypnotically melodic bass sets the tone on his composition "Cloud Stopper" and anchors the kinetic flurry of "Flanked," locked in with Black's aggressive drumming. "He Has a Pair of Dice" boasts a quirky head and group improvisation reminiscent of earlier yeah NO tracks, with Vu's breathy squalls standing out. "Dead Water" embodies the group's focus on the tune, each player carefully articulating the mood—the subtle percussion and repeating bass line support the elegiac horns.

Jim Black
Habyor
Winter & Winter
2004

Swapping Vu for guitarist Hilmar Jensson forms Black's Alas No Axis. On their third CD, Habyor , they continue to interweave rock tendencies with complex rhythms and restrained improvisation to serve songs, which distill Black's expansive influences. He compresses many ideas into "Rade" without sounding pastiche: a staggering opening, clean guitar over an up-tempo groove, spacious interlude and restatement of the intro that emerges as an intensifying romp to a tight finish. A breakneck, odd-metered pattern is the basis for "Hello Kombiant," which devolves into an improvised maelstrom and the closest thing to a drum solo on the CD, highlighting Black's dexterity. "Let It Down" has a funky, offbeat strut, while "Be Real" reveals Black's mellower side, with sparse accompaniment of Speed's moody tenor. At a recent concert at Tonic, the leader added texture to this song with subdued electronics. To open the show, they evoked dramatic waves while Jensson added bowed guitar, before he and Sverrisson doubled the percussive guitar attack of "Talk About." Live, the arrangements were liberated from the strict recorded versions, indulging the band's energetic whims.


Swell Henry

Tracks: 1. She Has Four Thorns (5:04); 2. Last Beginning (4:39); 3. Born in the Air (5:05); 4. Camper Giorno (5:23); 5. Cloud Stopper (3:43); 6. Flanked (1:49); 7. He Has a Pair of Dice (3:45); 8. Dead Water (4:03); 9. Staircase Genius (3:09); 10. Kip Files (2:02).
Personnel: Jim Black: Drums; Rob Burger: Accordion; Hilmar Jensson: Guitar; Jamie Saft: Guitar, Vocals, Mellotron, Wurlitzer; Chris Speed: Clarinet, Tenor Sax; Skuli Sverrisson: Bass; Cuong Vu: Trumpet.

Habyor

Tracks: 1. Talk About (4:04); 2. Z (4:25); 3. Rade (6:45); 4. Cha (5:28); 5. Part Wolf (5:56); 6. Hello Kombiant (3:28); 7. Let It Down (6:07); 8. Be Real (4:32); 9. Endgatherers (6:39); 10. Stay Go (4:21).
Personnel: Jim Black: Drums, Melodica, Wurlitzer; Hilmar Jensson: Guitar; Chris Speed: Clarinet, Accordion, Tenor Sax, Wurlitzer, Casio; Skuli Sverrisson: Bass.

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