Joëlle Léandre - Urs Leimgruber - Fred Frith - Alvin Curran: Oakland/Lisboa

John Sharpe By

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Under the moniker MMM Quartet a crew from diverse points of the compass assembled for a concert at the 2014 Jazz Em Agosto in Lisboa (Lisbon, Portugal). Three of the four principals have associations with Mills College in Oakland (the MMM acronym improbably stands for Mills Music Mafia), while the Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber is the solitary interloper. With constituent parts like French bassist Joëlle Léandre, English guitarist Fred Frith and veteran American pianist, composer and electronics whizz Alvin Curran, the virtuosity and experience of the ensemble is a given. It's not even their first recording together, as a 2012 previous meeting was documented as Live At The Metz Arsenal (Leo Records).

Everyone buys into the democratic ethos with ego largely subsumed. Across five selections culled from the performance, dense soundscapes prevail, which rarely settle but evolve hyperactively. Each cut takes a differing starting point, but all are subjected to kaleidoscopic variations. Given the varied origins and backgrounds of the participants, the cosmopolitan nature of the improvisations comes as no surprise. While genre remains indeterminate overall, the group members call on all their extensive inspirations to inform progress, even encompassing snatches of barrelhouse piano (particularly in "Bario Alto," a duet by Curran and Frith) and guitar licks which evoke Ry Cooder's Texas blues (towards the end of "Millsmont").

In concert it's immediately apparent who does what, but at one remove on disc attribution can be much more opaque. "Belem" begins in an exchange of croaks. Some clearly emanate from Léandre's bass, but the others are more puzzling. Is that guitar, or electronics or even saxophone? While recognizable sounds do surface—squiggling soprano saxophone, bursts of rhythmic piano—in many ways that's an incidental entertainment. In the end what matters is the quality of the conversation, not the dialect.

A combination of know-how and intuition hones the unlikely juxtapositions (Curran adds much in that regard, especially with his spoken word samples), and the split second twist or stick decisions. When done well as here, the music develops its own inner logic, and the prolonged applause at the close of "Alfama" affirms the audience's approval for the worth of the offering.

Track Listing: Belem; Millsmont; Bario Alto; Maxwell Park; Alfama.

Personnel: Joëlle Léandre: double bass; Fred Frith: electric guitar; Alvin Curran: piano, synthesizer, samples; Urs Leimgruber: tenor and soprano saxophone.

Title: Oakland/Lisboa | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Rogue Art


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