For an artist who never achieved the widespread acclaim of, say, John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, saxophonist Albert Ayler has had a surprisingly long-lasting effect on modern free jazz. Coming up as he did not through the bebop ranks, but from R&B, also lends credibility to more contemporary free artists coming to the genre through other forms of music, most notably punk, which clearly shares certain denominators with the more expressionist free playing of artists including Cleveland's Jeff Platz, whose Skull Session title, Rise Above
, was also reviewed recently. Add to that group a relatively new Seattle collective called Floss, whose début CD, Unwaxed
, has all the earmarks of Ayler, with a little John Zorn, William Parker, Archie Shepp and, surprisingly, Led Zeppelin thrown into the mix.
Floss has actually been together since '02, formed when Berklee-trained drummer Mark Ostrowski and Oberlin Conservatory of Music graduate John Semen on bass, both on the cusp of thirty years of age, met up with a twenty-four year-old woodwind player, Izaak Mills, a player with an apparently smug lack of regard for the conventional. Ostrowski cites Max Roach and John Bonham as main influences, and that's not as odd as it may sound; on Mills' track, "Floss," Ostrowski shifts between a solid rock groove and a completely free approach that still manages some of Roach's lighter cymbal work.
Seman only went to bass when, upon meeting Ostrowski, it became apparent that a bassist was needed. With a background that included piano, trumpet and tuba as well as percussion, adding another instrument to the arsenal wasn't a stretch. But while he majored in such lofty pursuits as composition on tuba and ethnomusicology, as well as a minor in composition and jazz bass, he was equally at home transcribing metal riffs on an old Casio keyboard. Mills, on the other hand, lists influences including Ayler and Black Sabbath. The seeming paradoxes inherent in Floss' varied influences only make what they do more curious.
The five free improvisations that make up the bulk of the set range from pure chaos ("Blatch" and "Whitey on Mars," where Mills, in particular, plays with complete and outrageous abandon) to the more serene but equally extravagant "Bruxism," where Mills draws extended sounds out of the flute, and Ostrowski, in particular, contributes more ethereal percussion work. The four composed pieces, two by Semen and one each by Mills and Ostrowski, are typical free exchanges where simple themes provide the barest of reference points.
While anarchy is a part of what Floss does, a strange sense of beauty sometimes pervades, as on Ostrowski's closer, "AD FINEM." The dichotomy of the group only makes them more interesting, and it provides a necessary contrast to make the entire programme flow. Unwaxed is an intriguing and, for the most part, successful combination of abandon and restraint, chaos and organization, that will appeal to listeners prepared to be at once shocked and appeased.