Thursday, January 25, 2018

CD Review: Nick Fraser - Is Life Long?

Nick Fraser
Is Life Long?
(Clean Feed)

Toronto drummer Nick Fraser has visited Pittsburgh three times with trumpeter Lina Allemano. In one of those appearances, with Allemano's Titanium Riot, Fraser played his kit very delicately, eyes closed, adding what was needed but never adding too much. Is Life Long? contains many moments like that, where Fraser could very easily cut loose amid some jagged free improvisation. But he holds back, adding color, or in some ways, echoing melodies on the drums.

Along with Fraser, this quartet includes Tony Malaby (tenor and soprano saxophones), Andrew Downing (cello), and Rob Cutter (bass, also a member of Titanium Riot). All three recorded with Fraser on 2013's Towns and Villages (Barnyard) as well.  Together they create a remarkable sound. Downing's cello sometimes works closely with Malaby's horns, but it also feels also operates comfortably in close proximity with Cutter. Combined with those varying textures, the six Fraser originals often find the musicians playing rhythms that contrast and clash with each other. The nervy soprano saxophone melody on "Disclosure" slides across the rhythm section's slow steady pulse. In it, Malaby never really clicks with the band, but with Downing's part complementing him, locking in clearly isn't the point.

But it makes for a dark, minor feel that continues for awhile on the album. Things kick off with four minutes of long, sustained wails ("Quicksand"), recalling heavier moments of AACM history, before Malaby switches from soprano to tenor to move in tandem with Downing over a bowed bass drone. This blend of free jazz and avant classical chamber sounds, with Fraser's loose-limbed accompaniment in the background, make it worth sitting through the unsettling first third of the track, especially to hear Malaby's tenor get a little vicious towards the end.

"Empathy" continues the mournful feeling with counter-melodies from Downing and Malaby. But the second half moves into brighter territory with "Skeleton" and "Arachnid," the latter with a staccato melody that tenor and cello keep in close proximity during the solos. By the time they get into formation for the march that Fraser gradually builds up in "The Predictor," the quartet hits a tense but powerful conclusion that sounds forthright and triumphant. The road to get to that point was a little dark and rough at times, but by the end it has proven to be a worthwhile journey.  

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