Label/Year: Clean Feed, 2017
Lineup - Tony Malaby: tenor and soprano saxophone; Andrew Downing: cello; Rob Clutton: double bass; Nick Fraser: drums.
Canadian drummer/composer Nick Fraser, a stalwart in the Toronto jazz scene, targeted a sequence for his previous albums, Towns and Villages (Barnyard Records, 2013) and Starer (independently released, 2016), with a new Clean Feed outing, which features exactly the same chord-less chamber quartet with Tony Malaby on saxophones, Andrew Downing on cello, and Rob Clutton on double bass.
Is Life Long? comprises six intuitively connected tunes that, mirroring freedom, develop within mood-changing structural blocks.
“Quicksand”, opening with long, contrasting-in-pitch, and quite ominous notes from arco and soprano, tinge a mysterious canvas with their eldritch presence. Thoroughly coordinated in these moves, Malaby and Downing devise the right wispy strains of melody to compose an unsettling atmosphere, having Fraser’s ruminative percussion as an underpinning. After dwelling in this vague suspension for one-third of the piece's duration, parallel movements of sax and cello commence, conveying a wider sense of cohesiveness but only to split up again for an organic polyphonic exploration. The tune shakes with turbulence in its final section, emphasizing Malaby's classy timbral work, acutely affixed to his peremptory exclamations, while flanked by the increasingly muscled thumping of the bandleader. At this point, one feels impelled into a tumultuous sonic epicenter.
A timing bass groove, obeying to an odd meter, sets the tone for “Disclosure”, an atypical yet majestic march where Fraser resorts to the hi-hat rather than the common snare rolls to set the pace. There are engaging chamber flourishes that suggest some relation with distant oriental places, creating in simultaneous a sensation of pure avant-garde ecstasy.
The fugue-like “Empathy” couldn’t have been given a better title since all the instrumentalists worked for a universal melodicism/organicism whose fluency encases dramatic classical movements delivered to the point.
Dissociating from the remaining tunes, the more-docile-than-acerbic “Skeleton” is a pleasurable swinger that shines from one end to the other via well-delineated jazzy unisons, a bouncy bass pizzicato, and constructive brushed drumming. Although nodding to tradition and advertising Mingus (mostly due to Malaby’s tenor rides), it feels utterly up-to-date in its unlocked musicality.
The curtains close after “The Predictor”, a slow-cooked recipe that takes time to shape and evolve. After a bemused embryonic state, it morphs into peppery percussive cadences and heavy, provocative agitations.
Fraser’s stylized signature is well patented on Is Life Long?. Whether unobstructed or congested, the gripping ambiances sketched by his deft quartet surround us with an unfaded, exploratory impressionism.
01 - Quicksand ► 02 - Disclosure ► 04 – Skeleton