Monday, December 14, 2015

CD Reviews: Tom Rainey Trio- Hotel Grief and Ingrid Laubrock - Ubatuba

Tom Rainey Trio
Hotel Grief 

Ingrid Laubrock

2015 has been a fruitful year for the Intakt label. While the CD industry is considered dead in this country, this Swiss label has cranked out a number of releases this year, all valuing artistic statement over commercial potential. Piano/drums duo performances by Marilyn Crispell & Gerry Hemingway and Irene Schweizer & Han Bennink; the duo of Mary Halvorson and Stephan Crump (known as Secret Keeper); as well as a blistering free improv romp by Katharina Weber (piano) Fred Frith (guitar) and Fredy Studer (drums): these are just some of the discs that washed up on our shores. 

Tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock has also shown up a few times on Intakt in 2015, together with a circle of friends. Roulette of the Cradle was released last spring by her group Anti-House, which included Halvorson and drummer Tom Rainey. The more recent Hotel Grief album credits Rainey's name first on the cover, but Laubrock and Halvorson are both listed in the same point size, giving them equal star value. (This is actually the second Rainey trio disc on Intakt. The group has toured quite a bit and Rainey and Laubrock have also toured as a duo. And - just for the sake of completion, not a comment on the performance - it should be noted that the latter two are married too.)

This egalitarian layout reflects the music, which comes from a totally improvised performance at the Cornelia Street Cafe in New York. No one calls the shots. One improvised section morphs into another, with Rainey's drums alternately providing shape to Laubrock's tenor lines or attempting to chop them up. Halvorson strums some mangled clusters of notes, or plucks away as her instrument sounds like it's melting. During one section of "Proud Achievements in Botany" she strums passionately and suddenly turns the volume pedal down, so all that's heard is the unamplified sound of plectrum on strings, captured by ambient mics. 

Although this is definitely free music, in terms of meter and melody, the comfort level and understanding between these three players makes the album sound as if at least some of it could have been composed or predetermined in some way. Three of the five tracks last between 13 and 18 minutes, which allows them all plenty of time to explore the space (and giving Laubrock the chance to switch to soprano sax on one of them). There are moments on the album that resemble a Tim Berne session, where one musician starts on a different path while the rest of the band backs away at first, allowing the piece to take on a different shape or sound. The musicians are highly engaged in conversation on this album and it's easy to feel that from the listener's standpoint.

Ubatuba features Laubrock (this time playing alto as well as tenor) and Rainey, together with Tim Berne (alto), Ben Gerstein (trombone) and Dan Peck (tuba). When Laubrock composed the material for the session, she wrote on the saxophone rather than the piano. This approach lends a starkness to some of the music, creating suspense as sounds layer over one another. 

"Any Breathing Organism" opens the album with the horns blowing low, long tones ever so softly, the sound of air nearly taking on as much significance as the clashes of notes. In the second half of the piece, Berne adds an animated solo to the backdrop but it never moves beyond the slow drone, so the suspense isn't completely dispelled.

The next track, "Homo Diluvi," begins with the horns playing warmer harmonies. The melody of this one moves in parallel lines, though the voicings stay pretty edgy and tense. After a wild alto solo, the track climaxes with a wall of high, shrill notes. This blast is nothing compared to the opening of "Any Many," in which each player coaxes the most rabid sounds out of their instrument, from somewhat flatulent tuba pops to saxophone growls. Laubrock, however, has more in mind that just the abrasives. Before the track ends, the quintet has dabbled in a more focused group improvisation and then a set of countermelodies that spill over one another and still maintain focus. All this, from one of Ubatuba's shorter tracks. 

Laubrock uses silence or open space in many of these tracks, which on the first few listens can be off-putting. "Any Breathing Organism" and "Any Many" have pregnant pauses galore. Then the final track "Hypnic Jerk" [sic] in fact sounds very much like it's over after seven minutes, when it's actually just reached the midway point. Laubrock begins with a pointed an alto solo backed by tuba and drums that gradually bring in the rest of the band.  Berne offers another solo, then things pull back, as Gerstein and Peck play softly off in the distance while Rainey taps on his rims and cymbals.  The dynamics rise back up, but things end with a twist: a fade-out on the drums. 

Ubatuba at times recalls the idiosyncratic compositions on some Art Ensemble of Chicago albums. (The opening track especially evokes Roscoe Mitchell's "Tnoona.") But the similarity seems more coincidental or it works more like a quick acknowledgement as she heads down her own path. While parts of the album don't come off as strongly, as a whole, she has created an interesting work with a strong band to elevate it. Also, her own solo on "Hiccups," backed only by Rainey, stands as one of the highlights and an example of the vision and energy from Hotel Grief working its way into a composed set. 

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