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Transit & Bad Guys: Two Piano-less Quartets

Clifford Allen By

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Since Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry gave the piano-less quartet such an unfettered sense of freedom and possibility way back in 1958, there have been countless permutations of the format, in varying degrees of adherence to the original blueprint. Even Charles Mingus had plenty to say with the line-up in 1961, with Eric Dolphy, Ted Curson and Dannie Richmond.

Almost fifty years after Tomorrow Is The Question!, piano-less quartets are still somewhat de rigeur in creative music. Two outfits, vastly different in approach, have recently been documented by Lisbon-based label Clean Feed: Transit, a New York cooperative ostensibly directed by drummer Jeff Arnal, and the Portuguese-American quartet of bassist Zé Eduardo and trumpeter (and Mingus alumnus) Jack Walrath.

Transit
Transit
Clean Feed
2006

Transit, both in the cover art featuring lines of ants and the composition titles reflecting MTA stops, is a take on the familiar sense of improvisation as physical movement. Arnal, bassist Reuben Radding, trumpeter Nate Wooley and altoist Seth Misterka (a Braxton associate) make their way through the turnstiles of ten collective improvisations, most coming in under eight minutes, on this 2001 recording.

The quartet's music is frequently sparse and evaporative; the fact that group playing is often broken down into solos and duets has brought comparisons with FMP and Incus-styled European groups (as if either of those two organisations had so easily classifiable a "style ). Of course, Transit just plays music; there is a strong pliability to these pieces, as even the most up-tempo numbers are stretched in several directions at once. These are not so much plastic improvisations—they're more like metal and wood being taken to the brink of fluidity, and this is what separates Transit from most free-bop dates.

The opener, "Courtelyou Q, begins with burning, loose swing, Radding's monstrous thrum and crisp-yet-gritty intonation reminiscent of forebears Grimes, Kowald and Duval—in other words, he's hugely propulsive. Misterka's alto has the soulful keen and cracked glass of a young Byard Lancaster (see also "Red Hook ), while Wooley's deft and brittle smears wheel around the ensemble. "Van Brunt is a ballad of harmonics and subtle wash, Misterka's whole-tone soliloquy offering the gorgeous sheen of Trevor Watts (a la "Prayer For Peace ). The piece builds into a liquid vamp, a conversation of wide-vibrato alto and full, fat trumpet hooking a ride aboard Arnal and Radding's wave.

Nooks of loose rustle fill "Sabbath Siren, while "Brick City Part 1 offers tumbling blocks of rhythm and jagged alto/trumpet collisions. Wooley sounds here like Braxton-era Kenny Wheeler, though the music is decidedly rougher and its threads hang at the edges. Similar single-note motifs pepper "Part 2," though Radding and Arnal pull in several different directions. Mass is certainly capital in this ensemble—Radding's bass is full of it, of course, and as the group approaches true density in its improvisations (as they do on the vicious "Der Blatt ) the quartet is imbued with a manic largesse.

Ze Eduardo/Jack Walrath Quartet
Bad Guys
Clean Feed
2006

It's been almost thirty years since trumpeter Jack Walrath recorded with Mingus in two of the bassist-composer's most significant post-Dolphy dates, the celebrated Changes set for Atlantic with tenor man George Adams and pianist Don Pullen. After a few big band recordings and a significant hiatus, Walrath has returned to the small group fold with Bad Guys, a collaboration with the Zé Eduardo Trio featuring tenor man Jesus Santandreu and drummer Marc Miralta (who apparently has replaced Bruno Pedroso in the drum chair). The quartet runs through seven originals by members of the group and, naturally, a Mingus piece, "Sue's Changes (central to the Changes sessions, as it is here).

"Simian Spring Song finds Eduardo holding a triple-time motif underneath the easy swing-song theme. Santandreu has quickly become a post-bop tenor saxophone favorite of mine; here he takes a Coltrane keen and digs his heels in almost as though he was cut from Texas or South Chicago cloth. His showing is as strong as on the Eduardo trio's A Jazzar No Zeca (Clean Feed, 2005). Walrath is in fine form, as a classy sheen imbues his liquid phrases with the feel of economy. "Birds Fly Free starts with collective hollering and a stop-time theme out of which Walrath pulls more than a few Booker Little-isms.

Even in the most somber of settings, Walrath has always been a bright, steely player, so it's a testament to the suppleness of this group that no member cuts through any more than any other—the feel is that of a truly collective ensemble. There is something definitely Mingus-like in the woody ostinatos of "Novissisms, though this comparison is informed by developments in free music—Eduardo is no revivalist. Walrath's "Bazaar" is a Moorish near-tango, Miralta building impressive floes to conduct some of Santandreu and Walrath's finest statements on the album.

Liberated, cooperative playing and tightly-swinging, melodic music are not independent approaches, and Zé Eduardo and his compatriots have found a perfect niche.

Tracks and Personnel

Transit

Track Listing: Cortelyou Q; Van Brunt; Gowanus Canal; Sabbath Siren; Brick City Part 1; Brick City Part 2; Journal Square; Der Blatt; Ditmas Park; Red Hook.

Personnel: Nate Wooley: trumpet; Seth Misterka: alto saxophone; Reuben Radding: bass; Jeff Arnal: drums.

Bad Guys

Track Listing: Simian Spring Song; Birds Fly Free; Novissisms; Sue's Changes; Bazaar; Realejo; Prou; Sun Sol.

Personnel: Jack Walrath: trumpet; Jesus Santandreu: tenor saxophone; Ze Eduardo: bass; Marc Miralta: drums.

Visit Jack Walrath and Ze Eduardo on the web.


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