Monday, February 13, 2017

CD Review: Ingrid Laubrock - Serpentines, Crump/Laubrock/Smythe- Planktonic Finales

Ingrid Laubrock

Stephan Crump/Ingrid Laubrock/Cory Smythe
Planktonic Finales

As I began this post last night, the Grammy Awards were being handed out. Downloads of music were reportedly greater than CDs sales over the past year. That means most people listen to the music in a completely different way than they did ten or more years ago. Albums don't really matter, and forget about cover art. That went out with the 20th centure.

Don't mention this to anyone in Europe, especially the jazz fans. On further thought, do tell them. I'd like to hear what their reaction is. They'd probably say we Americans don't appreciate a good thing, treating music like disposable, expendable bits of entertainment.

While record labels continue to be antiquated by the general public in the states, one label in Switzerland continues to churn out albums at such a rate that even their devoted supporters (Hi!) have trouble keeping up with them. A quick look at this blog will show that I get the chance to write about a release once in a while, but there are plenty more out there. Aside from the ones I reviewed in the past twelve months, I dug the Fred Frith Trio's Another Day in Fucking Paradise (for, among other things, a great album title), the Musical Monsters disc (which unearthed a 1981 performance by Don Cherry, John Tchicai, Irene Schweizer, Leon Fancioli and Pierre Favre) and Jim Black's The Constant. Black also just released a new electric project called Malamute (look for my review in an upcoming JazzTimes).

Saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock released her Serpentines project in November, followed this month by her collaboration with bassist Stephan Crump and pianist Cory Smythe, Planktonic Finales. Both discs complement each other while also showing different sides of the creative composer and improviser. Any label that will invest in an adventurous artist in that short a time period isn't going to have any regard for mass acceptance or sales anyway, just the music.

Serpentines puts Laubrock's tenor and soprano (and bits of glockenspiel) in the company of Peter Evans (trumpet, piccolo trumpet), Craig Taborn (piano) and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). Rather than utilizing a bassist, Laubrock brought in Dan Peck on tuba. Also along for the adventure are Sam Pluta (electronics) and Miya Masaoka (koto), who float in and out of the five tracks. Come to think of it, most of the players do that as well. The two-part "Pothole Analytics" begins with pointillistic sounds from the horns, jutting out without really cohering just yet. Things start to gel in part two, with soprano, trumpet, tuba and piano moving in parallel lines. Even Sorey, who can fit into any setting, seems to have a written part that drives things along. As quickly as things picked up, they also die down in the final minute.

"Squirrels" could have been banded into two tracks, like "Pothole Analytics" since the 15-minute piece has two distinct parts. After another rollicking soprano/piccolo trumpet conversation that appears to move from free to structured, the second half of the piece gets spare and open. Peck's tuba and Masaoka's koto create a pensive sound to which Pluta adds some electric static. Sometimes musical, sometimes noisy, it adds to sound and, at one point, makes the disc sound like it's defective. The rest of the band slowly eases in, with Laubrock casually joining the crew to close it up.

The group stretches out on the other two tracks with some fine moments, though things come up a little short. "Chip in Brain" is a dark tone poem built largely on low, long tones from Peck.  The combination of Taborn and Masaoko create some harplike sounds but as Evans moves from intermittent blasts to his own long tones, things never completely catch fire. The title track starts at a high level - with two minutes of free band blowing. Then things pull back to feature the piano and koto in an understated combination. It's engaging in its spareness but it doesn't end on any type of grand statement; it merely winds down.

Stephan Crump (who plays with Vijay Iyer and leads his own Rosetta Trio and quartet Rhombal) has released several intimate, free improvised discs for Intakt (with Steve Lehman and in Secret Keeper with Mary Halvorson). The seeds for Planktonic Finales were sown when Laubrock invited Crump and pianist Cory Smythe to her rehearsal space to play. Smythe has a background in classical music but played on Tyshawn Sorey's two recent albums, proving his flexibility as an improviser. The natural chemistry between the players worked so well that they attempted to recreate it - or perhaps continue it - by going into the studio.

In some ways, Planktonic Finales resembles Serpentines. It often moves slowly, casually, so as not to rush anything. "With Eyes Peeled" opens the album like an exposition, with each player figuring out the space between them. But more direction comes with each track, as if the whole set was originally recorded as a complete 54-minute piece and divided into 11 tracks later.

When Laubrock switches to soprano on "Sinew Modulations" her languid tenor sound is likewise transformed into a plucky attack, followed by some walking bass from Crump and some Monk-like interjections from Smythe. On "Through the Forest," the piano rises and falls, abruptly dropping out at one point, which gives the music a good accent. After exploring the space methodically for awhile, the trio finally cuts loose and wails on "Bite Bright Sunlight," but in another sly maneuver, they stop just shy of two minutes, knowing there are other roads to take.

Both of these albums keep the surprises coming. Some of them might not be discovered until you've made several returns to the disc. That type of approach might not be rewarded with statuettes, but as long as it keeps coming, let's consider ourselves lucky.

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