While the combination of reedman Frode Gjerstadthe godfather of Norwegian free jazz who dwells about as far from the so-called Nordic sound as you can getand pianist Matthew Shipp -whose lineage can be traced back through what he terms The Black Mystery School, which takes in Thelonious Monk, Mal Waldron and Randy Weston among othersmight seem unlikely, it makes perfect sense when you hear it. From the first piece "About Music" on, it is clear that this pairing is not only uncompromising and mercurial, but also simpatico.
In fact the distance between the two (notwithstanding the 5500+ kilometers between Stavanger and New York City) is not as great as it might appear. Although Gjerstad inhabits the territory of European improv mavens like guitarist Derek Bailey and reed iconoclast Peter Brötzmann, he has also entered productive partnerships with bassist William Parker, drummer Hamid Drake and Ornette Coleman alum, trumpeter Bobby Bradford, which brings him much closer to Shipp's orbit. Nor is We Speak their first recorded encounter. That was the unexpectedly compassion-filled date documented as Season Of Sadness (Iluso Records, 2019), in the company of cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm.
Like another frequent Shipp associate saxophonist Ivo Perelman, Gjerstad exhibits a marked affinity for the upper registers, particularly on clarinet. But, if anything, he sets them within an even more abstract discourse. Gjerstad favors a throaty growl which can zigzag into falsetto tracery. But he also shows himself capable of bursts of near melodic tenderness and sequences of false fingered bleats and muffled tones which suggest vulnerability and frailty. In inimitable style, Shipp's internal barometer swings wildly between thunder, sunshine, frost and showers, but nonetheless has the effect of grounding Gjerstad closer to the jazz vernacular.
While there is nothing resembling a prearranged unison or harmony here, there is an abundance of shared cadences and agreement in terms of mood and pacing. Those moods constantly morph, with two sometimes opposing impulses often combining to create a more unsettled and ambiguous tone overall. That is aided by the pleasing contrast between Gjerstad's altissimo squeals and Shipp's pounding bottom end, especially notable on the final "About Peace," but a recurring feature throughout. The longest track, the 12-minute "About Conspiracies" proves especially plastic, traversing not only peaks of high drama but also vales of delicacy. Their intensity comes tempered by passages of surprising sensitivity elsewhere too, stepping gingerly on "About Equality," as if tiptoeing over thin ice.
Across the eight studio cuts Gjerstad and Shipp negotiate a rigorous balance between empathy and agency in ways which are consistently stimulating and unpredictable, but most important of all, enjoyable.
About Music; About Hearing; About Freedom Of Expression; About Conspiracies; About Minorities; About Equality; About Silence; About Peace.
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