Nate Cross' Astral Spirits imprint has steadily become one of the go-to options for fans of adventurous music. With over a hundred releases in its five-year existence, including well over thirty in 2019 alone, the label has maintained an impressive commitment to both quality and quantity. However, an output this extensive can result in a few worthy releases falling through the cracks. Hopefully, that won't happen to Zoning, a particularly strong record which features the collective talents of drummer Nick Fraser, pianist Kris Davis and saxophonist Tony Malaby, along with guests Ingrid Laubrock and Lina Allemano, who offer their distinctive contributions, on tenor saxophone and trumpet, respectively, on half the album's six cuts. With intelligent songcraft and superb improvising, it is an engaging and stimulating album from beginning to end.
The Fraser/Davis/Malaby trio has recorded together before, on 2015's Too Many Continents (Clean Feed), and their shared affinity is immediately evident, with smaller gestures that inevitably build outward in much more expansive directions. Half of the album's tracks are Fraser's compositions, and he brings a meticulous attention to detail. Take, for example, the opening title track, where an enticing three-horn exchange launches the piece before Fraser and Davis join the conversation, and after the duo's brief discourse the horns jump back in, leading to an accrual of dynamic tension which culminates in a torrent of impassioned creativity. Laubrock's and Allemano's presence here gives Fraser a wider palette, and he takes full advantage of it. The same can be said of "Wells Tower," where the horns weave their magic into a devious rhythmic fabric provided by Davis and Fraser, or "Sketch 46," the album's most elliptical piece, with a mysterious aspect created by delicate figures and subtle textures from all five players, eventually taking a more determinate shape via Davis' assertive bass register and Fraser's momentum-building pulse.
The three trio-based tracks are just as compelling. "Events" is a scintillating Davis composition, with an irrepressible energy from the start, Malaby's acerbic tenor maneuvering adroitly alongside Davis' cascading shards and thunderous rumblings, while Fraser somehow holds it all together, only for the piece to transition suddenly into a fragile reverie. "Charismatics" is Malaby's creation, featuring his biting soprano saxophone over an intense eight minutes, Fraser and Davis fueling his emotional catharsis with a sinewy groove. The collectively-improvised "Coda" is a brief but fitting conclusion to the record, all three players allowing just a few traces of notes to signal the end of something special.
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