Unusual instrumentation inspires NYC-based trombonist Steve Swell to ever greater heights on the six compositions comprising The Center Will Hold. Pride of place goes to veteran drummer Andrew Cyrille, who certainly deserves the extra billing he receives on the cover. Beside him are a mixture of long time colleagues of the trombonist, violinist Jason Kao Hwang and cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and more recent collaborators, pianist Robert Boston, who fulfilled a leading role on Swell's accomplished Brain In A Dish (NoBusiness, 2019), and, on one of her first recordings, chromatic harmonica-player Ariel Bart, a 22 year old newcomer from Israel, who adds a startling new shade to Swell's palette.
Swell uses familiar building blocks of riffs and simple themes in novel ways in episodic open-ended settings on the first three tracks, where they frame exciting opportunities for individual expression, grasped with both hands by his talented crew. The dissonant annunciatory blasts from trombone and harmonica which launch proceedings immediately focus attention, while Cyrille provides the glue which binds together the swathes of improv color which follow. Swell's first feature, smearily zigzagging between registers, is one of the notable moments, as are the Sun Ra-evoking sonorities conjured by Bart and Boston on organ.
On the title cut, named in optimistic opposition to a line in the poem The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats, a propulsive vamp punctuates a series of arresting vignettes which include a bristling twosome between Boston's piano and Cyrille's drums, and a lightly-textured solo from the drummer in which he seemingly references the cadences of "The People United Will Never Be Defeated" among other infectious motifs. Among the striking passages in "Mikrokosmos II" are a klezmer-inflected summit between Bart and Hwang which spins woozily out of control, and a mercurial interchange between the leader and Boston, as well as an electronics-fuelled shape-shifting double act between Hwang and Lonberg-Holm.
Thereafter Swell tilts to more recognizable forms, with the punchy "Laugh So You Don't Cry" housing a sequence of stirring features, not least his own which veers between tight squiggly figures and sustained emotive cries, while Bart notably supplements her bent notes with an affecting human keen. Later, on the swinging "Robo Call" Hwang successfully juxtaposes effects laden screeches and distortions against the anthemic narrative. The closing "Spontaneous Protocols," as its name suggests, represents more of a returns to the early gambit, as it unfolds into a chain of duets with the always inventive Cyrille the common denominator.
Swell has produced a well-rounded program chock full of tremendous playing; it ranks alongside his finest releases.
Celestial Navigation; The Center Will Hold; Mikrokosmos II; Laugh So You Don't Cry; Robo Call; Spontaneous Protocols.
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