Fifty years after its inception, the avant-garde still regularly begs the hoary old question "Is it jazz?" Notwithstanding that it has persisted as an active style as long or longer than most of its predecessors, with a small but committed following around the globe while continuing to reinvent itself in different ways wherever the seed germinates, that question just won't go away. With each passing year the connections to the tradition become clearer, but still not clear enough perhaps.
Why this somewhat intemperate rant here? Larry Ochs' augmented Sax & Drumming Core as heard on Stone Shift were the latest avant-garde ensemble to be accused of not playing jazz by an irate punter in Spain. Only this time the police were called to pass judgment. What makes it worse is that Wynton Marsalis was alleged to have offered the accuser his entire recorded output as a reward. If he is tracked down, he deserves every minute.
Perhaps someone should slip this disc into the package. It comes on like a real foot-tapper with the opener "Across From Over" borne aloft by the tandem drums of Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson, stomping ass from the get-go behind Ochs' gruff tenor. They'd be rumbled though as it doesn't last: in fact the piece acts almost as a how-do-you-do to each of the "horns." And next up with the dual percussion is Natsuki Tamura's whinnying trumpet, then partner Satoko Fujii's chameleon synthesizer, before the whole band comes together in a cadenza of roiling intensity.
This is the third release by Sax & Drumming Core, one of Ochs' alternative outlets to long-time associates the ROVA saxophone quartet, but the first to include the Tokyo-based pairing. Even though known for their own potent conceptions, Fujii and Tamura integrate seamlessly into the overall sound. A band with special guests this ain't. That's true not only when they tackle notated material, but in the splendid interplay commonplace throughout the four lengthy pieces totaling just short of an hour.
Belying the emphasis in the group's name, the twin drummers don't dominate proceedings. Well-separated in stereo channels, both are as sensitive as they are sturdy, allowing ample space on the dramatic title track for Tamura's breathy murmurs, and piano arpeggios and synth noise. Later on the same piece they crank up the crossfire, driving Ochs' cart-wheeling sopranino, before trading fierce rolls and crashing cymbal crescendos in conclusion.
All four pieces are attributed to Ochs. Even where there is no overt composition, as on the episodic "Finn Veers for Venus," there is clearly organization afoot as the abrupt changes of mood veer from intense fiery exuberance to determinedly restrained. It is that strong sense of structure which unifies the five constituents through rhythm, timbre and tempo, yet also allows them fertile space as individuals. It might be a thought to call the police, the next time music doesn't deliver on that.
Across From Over; Abstract Rising; Stone Shift (for Kurosawa); Finn Veers for Venus.
Larry Ochs: tenor and sopranino saxophones; Satoko Fuji: synthesizer, piano; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Scott Amendola, Donald Robinson: drums.
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