Free jazz, or avant jazz, is risky business. The best of the bunch show how a group of players can operate in simpatico by virtually creating something out of nothing; or how to create new and unusual sonic textures that take the listener to places heretofore uncharted. The worst sound like a conglomeration of players who are simply generating a lot of unfocused noise. Drummer/arranger Jimmy Bennington, on his début release Midnight Choir , sits conspicuously on the fence; with enough structure and empathy within the group to demonstrate some sense of direction while, at the same time, never quite coalescing the free jazz elements into something whole.
The album is also somewhat schizophrenic. From the free excursions of saxophonist Seth Paynter’s three tracks to the overt romanticism of the Michel LeGrande staple, “What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?” it almost feels like two different groups, two different records. Albert Manglesdorff’s “Street of Loneliness” and John Coltrane’s “Equinox” sit somewhere in the middle; straddling the line between post-bop and free jazz; they are, arguably, the two most successful tracks on the record in that they impose a certain structure while, at the same time, providing plenty of freedom for the group to experiment.
The players are all skilled, if not exceptional. The core trio of Paynter, bassist David Klingensmith and Bennington play with confidence and a certain chemistry. Trombonist Bruce Melville, who appears on two tracks, is a strong player who coaxes a variety of textures from his instrument, especially on “Equinox”. Pianist John Benjamin shows the ability to cross from the free jazz of “Ganges” to the more lyrical LeGrande tune.
The group approaches free jazz sometimes with the snaking approach of Ornette Coleman, and other times with the more spacious approach of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but never comes close to being as satisfying as either. And that, in the final analysis, is the problem with Midnight Choir ; the group plays well, but never manage to elevate things beyond the pedestrian. Listeners interested in exploring free jazz would be better off looking elsewhere for inspiration.
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