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Alexander Hawkins Ensemble: Step Wide, Step Deep

Karl Ackermann By

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As he did on his fine solo piano release Song Singular (Babel, 2014), Alexander Hawkins takes his newly formed ensemble on a path that blurs the perceptions of composition and free improvisation. Step Wide, Step Deep floats free of implications and becomes its own entity. The ensemble establishes a rich and unique setting, sometimes disquieting, sometimes melodic but in all cases providing a dialog that resonates in content and in how that content is conveyed.

Despite the success of his previous ensemble, Hawkins felt that a new approach was in order and so, retaining only guitarist Otto Fischer, he restocked the talent pool. But for listeners who found no now is so (FMR, 2009) and All There, Ever Out (Babel, 2011) to be intriguingly confounding, Step Wide, Step Deep has lost none of the edge that put those earlier outings on the radar in Europe. In fact, the pulsing agitation, restrained intonations and dense interactions of both are more pronounced here.

The twelve minute plus title track is a two part composition that wraps up with "Space of Time Danced Thru" and it exemplifies the influence of the ensemble's new instrumentation. Clarinetist Shabaka Hutchins and violinist Dylan Bates juggle multiple intonations laying groundwork for the other players to build and deconstruct upon. Like an upbeat, controlled anarchy, the piece is typical of the atypical nature of the collection. "MO (-Ittoqqortoormiit)" features single sparsely placed notes from Hutchins, Fischer and Bates before drummer Tom Skinner brings the disembodied proceedings together. Only then does Hawkins join in and he dominates the piece for an extended period playing over the other instruments. Eventually the piece becomes an uneasy conversation between Hawkins and Bates and descends into subdued chaos.

"Advice" opens as western swing meets post-bop while "Ensemble/Melancholy" bubbles up from below the surface to conclude as an agitated and episodic tune. "Baobab Constellation" closes the album twice, in effect. Just as the piece builds to a crescendo it then drops into a dead silence for about two minutes (where undoubtedly a number of the uninitiated would have ejected the disc). The piece returns as an unhurried improvisation that runs another seven minutes and is well worth the wait. Step Wide, Step Deep is another exceptional album from Hawkins and a continuation of his expansion of that section of the Venn diagram where composition meets free improvisation.

Track Listing:

Personnel: Dylan Bates: violin; Neil Charles: double bass; Otto Fischer: electric guitar; Alexander Hawkins: piano; Shabaka Hutchings: clarinet, bass clarinet; Tom Skinner: drums, percussion.

Title: Step Wide, Step Deep | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: Babel Label

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