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Return Of The New Thing - Traque

Joe Milazzo, Bagatellen

Licks, riffs, and gnarled, bronchial-purging hollers on alto sax; crippled bass ostinatos; drumming that circles around and around recognizable patterns of propulsion and accompaniment (ride cymbal action, press rolls); heavily chordal piano style that nonetheless eschews conventional tonality: Return of the New Thing makes music that, however spontaneously realized, relies on repetition - internal and external.
The cooperative's very name establishes the musicians' individual and collective responsibilities towards a very specific set of musical customs older than perhaps some of the individuals participating in this group activity. Its not enough to point out the historical irony of an "avant garde tradition", to note how old, in real years, the "new thing" is. For this does not answer the question of why the "new thing" continues to intrigue musicians and appeal to (admittedly, quite small) audiences.
And I suppose the listener won't find any answers here unless they have either a very strong sympathy for or a powerful antipathy against this music. Myself, I remain unmoved from basic neutrality (which is not synonymous with ambivalence, though it feels that way sometimes), though I have tried over the course of several auditions of this recording to form a firm opinion of the proceedings it documents: the title track - and longest work - is a studio performance from 2002; the remaining four are drawn from an engagement at the Festival Jazz á Mulhouse from 2000. There is no question that these four musicians - François Fuchs on bass, Edward Perraud on drums, Jean-Luc Guionnet on (primarily) alto and soprano saxophone, and the always-eloquent Dan Warburton on piano (he does not make much use of his violin in this ensemble) - are all technically adept, committed to their chosen aesthetic, and well-matched in terms of their listening sensitivity. But what these five pieces lack is a certain amount of character and context. Perhaps I reveal here just how unimaginative a listener I am, but to me the trope "new thing" resonates with a whole set of cultural and historical connotations.
Unlike the French New Wave in cinema, the new thing was never about pure style. To treat the music of Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, Archie Shepp, and the first generation of European "free jazz" players (Peter Brötzmann, Marcello Melis, Chris McGregor) as such is to bowdlerize that music. So that in gazing backwards as this music, the players open themselves not just to inspiration, but to danger as well. Huh? Well, the 2000 pieces are more distinctively "out" and yet more conventional in terms of what going on in improvised today.
As Warburton himself discloses (confesses?) in his annotations to this release, the band does somehow split the difference between "free jazz" and "free improvisation". Passages of Art Ensemble of Chicago-like hushed sound experimentation, oafish figures maneuvering tiny, delicate objects of silver and porcelain around in a room whose brilliant lighting is silence. The tension is not without its comic aspects. Not so suddenly, "energy music" tumult is unleashed, but it does not manage to reach a status of "startling". "Scent" a good example: there are passages that sound almost modal, melismatic muezzin-cries on soprano sax, the slowly accretion of forward momentum, but for much of its length it's a discharge of noises that jostle and scrape against one another but remain largely inert. Susurration; tap; rattle; chime; thump; squink; klonk; howl; etc.
Looking back over the performance's expanses from a retrospective vantage, one sees how sectional, even episodic it is. It could have been seven or eight different performances as easily as it could have been one. This is not to say that it lacks some unity, but that a certain amount of arbitrariness is built into the processes by which it was made. One cannot disavow linear story-telling techniques, however, and expect to retain the exact dramatic potential that old-fashioned exposition-conflict-complication-climax-resolution-denouement narrative produces. Yet it seems to me sometimes as if inherent in much strictly non-idiomatic free improvisation, from the Maneri's to AMM, is the desire to retain precisely this kind of dynamic but without having to sully itself with the oh-so-square and obvious means by which it is most easily achieved.
So that, though we've heard it all before in some wise, attitudinally, even philosophically, there's something more risky about the tenor sax excoriations of a Charles Gayle or the sheer megatonnage of Borbetomagus, which deny any sort of arc. There is nothing but drive, unforgivingly starting on high and never wavering. To paraphrase Nigel Tufnel, there's no moving back and forth between one and ten, with all the drama that implies. There's only setting it at eleven and leaving it there. No anticipation, no nuance, no lesson (but perhaps a caution). Even Archie Shepp's massive 60's medleys, which "Scent" superficially resembles, powerfully enact this fascination with only one connotation of "extreme". This is further born out by the studio / title track - the operative metaphor for this release, despite other compositions entitled "Trictrac" and "Babil", is not locomotion, but inhibitions - which is pure energy music, quite dense, with Warburton especially impressive, creating truly inspired chromatic sequences at a number of junctures during the performance.
But the moment the music lets up, pauses, becomes an expression of what Warburton describes as "playing against an opponent… [and not] play[ing] with someone," the music feels calculated. I wonder never characterize it as disingenuous, mind you, but the music does sometime seem to substitute over-analysis for the supple interplay of reflexes.
Maybe the distinction Warburton draws between "free jazz" and "free improvisation" is not so useful after all. Or the line just masks a deep, unbridgeable chasm. The group cannot seem to occupy both territories at once. Perhaps we can attribute this to the "classic" horn-plus-rhythm-section instrumentation, or to the constrictions of an overarching conceptual ulteriority.
To answer a question you may be waiting to have acknowledged by a "reviewer": yes, this is a "good" CD. In a number of ways, it is a superb CD, spacious and tuneful in ways "energy music", with its 120 fps [frames per second], jagged abstraction often is not. But what this CD also proves is that, as is only fitting for the times in which we live, it is much easier to reference a tradition than it is to honor it, extend it, found a new tradition upon that which it is comforting to call old.