Music is an art that exists only in time. Unlike painting and literature, it cannot be appreciated without the passage of time. One cannot freeze it to study it. You cannot stand in front of a piece of music and examine every detail for as long as you want, at least not the actual sound element of music. A music score is not music; it is merely a visual representation of how to play a written piece. Therefore, one must enter into a time continuum to experience music, whether it be completely notated/composed music or completely improvised music, as is practiced by the New York Free Quartet.

Why the preamble? Merely to point out that the time taken to create this music is the exact amount of time it will take to hear it. One must enter into a contract with this type of music. Is the time worth it? Absolutely. Consider all the reasons why that is true.

“Cage” is a moody, introspective meditation of sorts that slowly shifts between tones and timbres. Bass clarinet probes and bubbles while percussion and contrabass drive the momentum forward. The piano frames the music only to dissolve into the spirit of shakuhachi. The overall effect may be internal but each individual listener will take their own mood from the hearing of it. Micheal Moss reaches into his own personal history to briefly quote Mussorgsky. What does it mean? It means that he exists in the music. Nothing more, nothing less.

“Dorje” begins in much the same way but this time there is a deepening of the meditative quality of the music. A guttural voice beckons and the instruments slowly enter the swirl. Inventive, extended techniques can be heard from all four musicians. The effect is akin to a summoning. Something is going on and it is serious but it is not simple nor is it commonplace. Rather, the music is a lovely tangle of texture and emotion.

“Trane Blew What He Knew” features Larry Roland’s poetic utterances on the historic impact of John Coltrane’s artistic presence in the world. The musical framing of the poetry does not imitate Coltrane, however, except in the most general way. The improvisations leave plenty of space and each of the musicians is mindful of what the others are doing. Their interactions are dovetailed as opposed to leading or following. As things get more active, a special group aesthetic emerges that perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the great Trane. A suitable tribute, to be sure. Roland’s delivery is idiomatic and dramatic while never sounding contrived or pretentious. It’s clear that his poetry is struck with the same talent as his bass artistry.

 

We are slowly drawn into a progressively shifting melange on “Diamondback Dragonfly.” Steve Cohn suggests an almost timeless melding of modern textures with the insistent presence of the blues always working as an undertow in the musical currents. Moss’s flute is precisely probing while Chuck Fertal provides the kind of rhythmic momentum and commentary at which he always excels. In fact, it should be pointed out that much of the quartet’s success could be attributed to Fertal’s ability to listen, react, instigate and direct the music while accompanying his cohorts with solid, sympathetic and inspired contributions. This piece also benefits from Cohn’s dynamic and unfettered trombone playing. Needless to say, his improvisations are unique and his phrasing will be recognizable to those familiar with his pianism. Inside this web of creation, Roland’s active and articulate bass points the way and, like all the members of this improvising ensemble, he both leads and follows with equal eloquence. One of the most impressive features of this extended improvisation is the degree to which the quartet leaves space between their phrases. When improvisers are confident in their abilities, they have no need to play every lick they know in every performance. This seasoned, veteran ensemble is the embodiment of that virtue.

The quiet grace of “Birthday 41” arrives on waves of pianistic expansion and it clearly exemplifies the unique approach of Steve Cohn. For years, commentators have attempted to compare Cohn’s style with other popular and well-known artists. Most of those comparisons are invalid because Steve sounds like nobody but himself and has worked a lifetime to make sure his playing stays that way. Michael Moss brings the warmth of clarinet lyricism into the picture before things get more agitated and excited but this music surges and recedes as a matter of course. Listen to the way Roland and Fertal enter and lay out throughout this piece. Masterful. The aggregate effect is pointillistic but moody to a degree and perfectly illustrative of the dreamlike quality of the whole session.

Larry Roland delivers more poetic wisdom and street-level reality in “In Between Gigs…………..You Dig?” The musical accompaniment is sophisticated and shifting as the piano rumbles and the drums scamper. Larry’s pithy statements reflect the daily trials and tribulations of the working musician in New York City. There is also a palpable sense of unity between the words and the musical elements in this piece. This is carefully considered composition, both premeditated and inspired in the moment. When Moss joins the fray the music swirls and propels the poetry to a new level. Cohn’s trombone seems to mark out the boundaries of the ensemble parameters. The walking bass comes and goes and the sense of movement and activity evokes nothing more than the evolution of the struggle to create.

“For Roy” effectively conjures the spirit of the late, creative trumpeter Roy Campbell in a fitting tribute. Michael Moss gets things underway with a beautiful tenor saxophone introduction whose tender lyricism is contrasted with Cohn’s sensitively abstract piano work. Again, Fertal and Roland give the excursion shape with rhythmic jabs and silences. But this quartet is always concerned with forward momentum. Despite the spaces they all leave for each other, they continually push forward and effectively avoid even momentary instances of coasting, the bane of some improvising groups. Moss calls up the spirits of Coltrane and Ayler here but never in an imitative fashion. As the piece comes to a close, it becomes fittingly dramatic and declamatory, with all four musicians blending their statements with great unity.

The album ends with the appropriate “Shaku Yaqui” and a sense of calm conclusion is conveyed. Moss and Cohn blend flute and shakuhachi in a dreamy melange of almost ceremonial intensity. The flow is carefully ramped up and pulled back with percussion punctuating over a continuous arco contrabass background. The timeless quality of this last track is maintained by what can best be described as “group think.” In other words, everyone is on the same page.

Sensitive listeners attuned to creatively improvised music don’t need to be told that this is an exceptional quartet who has delivered a superb collection of music with “Dream Time.” For those who may be coming to this music for the first time, I can only express envy. This experience is like no other.

Carl Baugher

January 2017

 

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