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The leaderless, Chicago-born Sticks and Stones trio issued its self-titled debut in 2002 on the 482 Music label. Shed Grace, the group’s Thrill Jockey follow-up, is another fine set—driven by free invention, filtered through democratic exchange. Together, alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, bassist Josh Abrams and drummer Chad Taylor speak the language of free jazz but contend with an array of influences. Their music has the swinging abandon of Ornette Coleman’s Golden Circle recordings, but also the polyrhythmic drive of Dave Holland’s Triplicate (with Steve Coleman and Jack DeJohnette).
That said, Sticks and Stones has arrived at its own way of a balancing composition and improvisation. All three members continue to write for the band. The disc leads off with two contrasting pieces by Abrams: “Shed Grace” places a legato melody over a sonic onslaught of bass and drums, while “The Refusal” finds Roberts on clarinet, responding to Taylor’s brilliant solo introduction and later joining Abrams in a free form duet. The body of the piece is in 12/8, with an abbreviated, Eastern-tinged unison motive. Later, Abrams builds “So Very Cold” around a simple 6/4 bass line and, eventually, a yearning, high-register alto melody.
Taylor’s “Wordful” is a written rubato theme colored by cymbals, mallets and arco bass; his “Wonder Twins,” in 5/4, receives especially strong input from Abrams. Roberts’ first entry is “Veatrice,” with an African-influenced three-against-four figure broken up by a series of mysterious pauses. The final track, another Roberts piece titled “4:30,” lasts just about that long. It starts out fast and hot but then does a 180º, winding down sparse and out of tempo.
Three non-original selections round out the program. Roberts reveals her more straight-ahead side with a ballad reading of Strayhorn’s “Isfahan,” and the trio has fun with a very short and highly abstract version of Monk’s “Skippy” (an obscure tune mined in recent years by David Liebman and Ralph Peterson). While the first Sticks and Stones album nodded toward Jamaica with a cover of Junior Delgado and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Sons of Slaves,” Shed Grace honors Fela Kuti with a loose four-minute take on the Afro-beat pioneer’s “Colonial Mentality.”
Jazz is a continuing revelation. The best show I ever attended was the
Roots Picnic at Penn's Landing in Philadelphia, or was it Robert
Glasper's Experiment at Lincoln Center, or was it Chick Corea with
Brian Blade at Oberlin College? Most of all I enjoy playing guitar and
composing beats with my Brooklyn-based group Space Captain.