What can be said in a positive vein about Zoning, an essentially inward-leaning and dissonant exercise in avant-garde or "free" jazz by drummer Nick Fraser, pianist Kris Davis and saxophonist Tony Malaby (supported on three numbers by tenor Ingrid Laubrock and trumpeter Lina Allemano). Well, it is music, of a sortand it is (largely) improvised, or appears to be, which places it somewhere in the inclusive jazz sphere. And despite its often chaotic and generally unmelodious contours, the music's interpreters must have an over-all game plan in mind, as they manage to disembark in tandem at each of the album's half-dozen stopping points.
So much for the positive. One question that arises when listening to Zoning, or "free" jazz in generaland it is not meant to be flippant or impertinentis, what do these musicians hear that the lion's share of listeners do notor cannot? Or, to put it in more facetious terms, do they actually study to sound like that? Okay, that was below the belt. Granted, there are no musicians on these premises who are less than competent. Having said that, it is clear that these players inhabit a musical universe that is far removed from the comprehension and approval of all but a select few pedants. There are some, it is true, who may be drawn to and enchanted by the anarchy and turbulence of Zoning; the surmise here, however, is that their number won't be large.
Listening to this music is arduous, and describing it even more so, as everyone seems to be on his (or her) own wavelength, presumably listening (and reacting) to what their compatriots are doing at any given millisecond. If there appears to the untrained ear to be no rhyme or reason underlying its premise, that's not true (or at least it should not be true). The problem lies in unraveling what that rhyme and reason may be. Failing that, what remains is a vast and impenetrable labyrinth of sound and fury signifying not much beyond the deep-rooted preferences of the musicians involved. Please bear in mind, however, that Zoning is being evaluated by one who does not pretend to understand or appreciate "free" jazz or any music that strays far afield from the basic principles of melody, harmony and rhythm. Others may well disagree with this appraisal, some even vehemently. And that's fine. Stars? Therein lies a problem. Let's say two for musicianship.
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