Saturday, May 30, 2020

CD & DL Review: Threadbare (Jason Stein/ Ben Cruz/ Emerson Hunton) - Silver Dollar & Greg Ward/Jason Stein/ Marcus Evans/ Chad Taylor/ Matt Lux - 85 Bears

Though, at this point, we're all still pretty much under quarantine, a number of albums are still being released. In fact, several musicians will have multiple albums hit the street in 2020, in some fashion. Matthew Shipp is one of them, which reminds me - my review of his latest album, Piano Equation, is up on JazzTimes' website, and can be found right here.

Add Jason Stein to that list. The bass clarinet maestro has two new releases with two vastly different projects, both destined to raise intrigued eyebrows due to their musical and, perhaps, physical formats. 

Threadbare (Jason Stein/Ben Cruz/ Emerson Hunton)
Silver Dollar

Threadbare finds Stein putting his musical head together with guitarist Ben Cruz and drummer Emerson Hunton. The latter two are Oberlin graduates who have jazz pedigrees but they also play in the indie rock band Moontype. Together with Stein, they create something that sits at the crossroads of adventurous jazz and post-rock. To be specific, they evoke a version of the Dirty Three, with Warren Ellis' violin switched out for Stein's bass clarinet. Much like that Australian group, this trio doesn't always seem in a rush to move at full throttle, preferring a languid opening in a piece like "Threadbare 02" before reaching a shambolic climax.

Cruz strums an unsyncopated rhythm in the intro of  "70 Degrees and Counting Down," with Hunton bashing behind him, unsure whether to keep the tempo or break loose. But while the Dirty Three use elongated time and dynamics to make their points, Threadbare draws on both their technical skills and indie rock candor to take this music places. This track in particular rises in waves, only to pause and start again at a lower volume.

While Cruz could have coasted on his chordal playing, he also peels off some strong leads, recalling Ask the Ages-era Sonny Sharrock during a distorted break in "Funny Thing Is." "Untitled" also shows off his melodic skills. Hunton's inventive playing offers a strong future that could find him amazing free jazz or rock. Hopefully both.

The album's heaviest moment comes in "Silver Dollar," where Stein and Cruz create a long sustained low drone, with Hunton stoking the waves that crash against them. The piece has harmonic variety to it even as they create a fierce noise. Rather than just savage squalling, Stein's overtones give it dimension even as it threatens to make the whole thing melt. Cruz adds some upper register chordal variety to make it sound fuller. Not satisfied to blow listeners ears, the trio brings it down to a calm level to close it.

All the tracks on Silver Dollar were written by either Cruz or Hunton, with one a collaboration. The trio's wide ranging sound could sound right at home in an edgy jazz club or they could fit right in at a primitive DIY space with a few indie rock bands.

Greg Ward/Jason Stein/Marcus Evans/ Chad Taylor/ Matt Lux

Following last year's excellent album/band Nature Work, Stein and alto saxophonist Greg Ward come  together with some friends for something much looser. The order of the day is free blowing and the overarching theme, for lack of a better word, gets its power from the 1985 roster of the Chicago Bears. All 11 tracks are named for a member of that Super Bowl XX-winning team.

Bassist Matt Lux and drummer Marcus Evans play on the majority of the tracks, though Chad Taylor occupies the drum stool on three. Evans interacts well with the horn players, occasionally playing in duet form. On the opening "Lament for Sweetness," though, his switches to electronics for a 59-second sound puzzle with Ward. Throughout, Stein and Ward bounce ideas off one another, blowing long tones or running parallel. (Maybe they are evoking football players after all.) Lux often acts as more a support player, adding shape to things.

The biggest surprise comes with Taylor's performances on "Wilbur," "Gault" and "Suhey." He overdubbed his parts two years after the initial tracks were laid down. But you would never know consider the way his feisty rim work on "Wilbur" blends so well with Ward and Stein. He and Lux sound right at home behind the bass clarinetist in "Gault."  These concise tracks have a direction that isn't always felt throughout the rest of the album. However there are many points where things congeal and with the longest track coming in at seven minutes, the scene changes before things get too aimless.

The label ears&eyes typically releases albums on CD but 85bears is being sold as either a download (hence the Bandcamp link above) or, for those still missing the '90s, on cassette. Hearing it on tape might make the starts and endings of different tracks hard to detect, but in some ways, that's part of the fun of it, I suppose.

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