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Though in the jazz world, Detroit and southern Michigan often get the most credit for producing Hahd bop talents like Kenny Burrell, Tommy Flanagan and the brothers Jones, there has long been a slow-burning fire of free improvisation and creative music tapping into the Motor City's pulse. Reedmen Faruq Z. Bey and Skeeter Shelton, both onetime co-leaders of the Griot Galaxy, are longtime members of the region's new music community. A somewhat younger set (but not by much) are the Northwoods Improvisers, who have been collaborating with the saxophonists since earlier in the decade. The Northwoods Improvisers have been active since 1976, though their initial steps were a brand of unclassifiable homegrown electro-acoustic improvisation. Since that time, their approach has become keyed into a well-groomed hybrid of modal jazz, freedom and non-Western musics that fit perfectly with the approachsomewhat tangential to the AACMthat collaborators Bey and Shelton have long instilled in their playing.
Journey into the Valley (a set that also includes a DVD of the live recording session) is one of two recent Bey-Shelton-Northwoods Improvisers discs and their sixth collaboration. Reedman Mike Carey introduces "Family Folk Song" on concert flute in a spare cascade of metal, wood and air before vibes, bass and drums produce the meaty slink of "Moors." The three tenorsBey, Shelton and Careyweave together into an earthy bounce in thematic homage to Archie Shepp's "Wherever June Bugs Go." Bassist Mike Johnston and drummer Nick Ashton sally forth a downbeat as Mike Gilmore's vibes provide sleek counterpoint, an interpenetration of deft, nearly urbane minimalism and musty energy from somewhere more rural. A Griot Galaxy staple, "Zychron," replaces the R&B honk of "Moors" with delicately-spread long tones that mirror electronics, before Bey's alto is off at a curling run, buoyed by an incredibly up-tempo rhythm section romp of dust and glass. There's a delicate play here between adroit, detailed technique and a coarseness befitting an earlier age, gritty tenor playing soft as a handkerchief and likewise creased, gentle swing. "Blue Monk" takes this to a coy extreme as the saxophonists inhabit a disheveled Sun Ra-like space apposite precision timing.
Mostly, though, the band is incredibly tight and fleshes out arrangements like the stately Tunisian whirl of "In the Valley" with uncommon poise. This schooled reverence is likely wholly in response to the history and weight sprung forth from players like Bey and Shelton, who are far from household names in contemporary improvisation, but whose groundwork the Northwoods Improvisers will doubtless expand upon for years to come.