“It Would be Easier If”
Composer/alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Ken Thomson plays with a variety of ensembles, from Asphalt Orchestra to Signal. Other new music luminaries such as Bang on a Can and the American Composers Orchestra have commissioned pieces from him. But his latest recorded outing is with still another group: Slow/Fast. Joined by trumpeter Russ Johnson, guitarist Nir Felder, bassist Adam Armstrong, and drummer Fred Kennedy, Thomson presents five substantial pieces that bring together his two principal spheres of activity: jazz improvisation and contemporary composition.
On “Kleine Helmet,” Thomson (on bass clarinet) and Johnson perform long arcing melodies in octaves over judicious rhythm section activities that allow them considerable space and freedom. The same duo winds configuration takes a foreground role on “G_d D___ You, Ice Cream Truck.” But here, the musicians really cook, with the horns taking up relentless, angular, and often blistering altissimo leads. Correspondingly, the rhythm section adopts a more propulsive role, with Felder’s guitar providing an agitato ostinato counterweight to the busy melodic foreground.
Armstrong and Kennedy get a chance in the spotlight on the freewheeling slow introduction to “No, No, No.” When winds and guitar join them, they craft atmospheric, gradually evolving tone clusters. Further “out” than the CD’s previous cuts, it’s also artfully paced and evocative music-making.
The playfully titled “Wanderangst” brings a more lighthearted ambience to the proceedings. But it’s no less carefully orchestrated. Pitched percussion and a buffo-tinged bass clarinet solo engage in a sparkling colloquy, while the other participants edge their way towards a post-bop jazz palette. Johnson overlays the texture with a supple sostenuto melody, while Armstrong’s bass clarinet encroaches on his turf with dovetailing walking lines. The accumulation of strands is gradual, but the tune’s subtle buildup allows for each performer to have his own space for development. The piece dissolves just as elegantly, gradually fragmenting into a false ending, and then building back up to a stentorian tutti climax.
The CD closes with its title track: “It Would be Easier If.” A ballad, it features sinuous legato lines from Johnson underlaid with sensitive comping from Felder. This is gradually challenged by interruptive flurries from Thomson. The two winds start to cohere into an uneasy duet alliance, their independent melodies gradually morphing into a series of repeated interlocking gestures. The move from modern jazz to minimalism takes still another detour, as the rhythm section steps up and reclaims the music-making for a gentler, more swing-based, conception. The winds and rhythm section once again build to a fulsome climax, creating crashing waves of massed textures followed by a brief denouement; ending the piece in a stylistically hybridized fashion. It’s a fittingly varied statement with which to end this multifaceted yet satisfying recording.