At a 2009 ECM @ 40 celebration in Mannheim, Germany that was part of the ongoing Enjoy Jazz Festival, Italian trumpeter Enrico Rava spoke, in a public interview, about how free jazz, back in the day, wasn't really free. There were rules: no time and/or no changes, for example; with memorable melodies not impossible, but not encouraged. Rava continued on to enthuse that now, in the 21st Century, free jazz really is free: if you want to play time, you can play time; if you want to play no changes, you can play no changes; if you want to play a beautiful melody, you can play a beautiful melody. Anything is allowed; nothing is forbidden.
Wise words, indeed, but in the new millennium, technology and greater explorations into extended instrumental techniques and newly created instruments has made it possible to add another set of variables into the list of the allowable: color, texture, atmosphere...soundscape. These more modern improvisational facilities can, of course, vary as widely as the vast array of sound processing that has evolved over the past decades, with artists exploring the broadest regions of sound including Norwegian live sampler Jan Bang and producer/remixer/electronic soundscapist Erik Honore, along with the rest of their Punkt Festival cohorts including guitarists Eivind Aarset and Stian Westerhus and trumpeters Nils Petter Molvaer and Arve Henriksen; while acoustic explorers including Henriksen and Molvær, fellow trumpeter Eivind Lønning and saxophonist Espen Reinertsen have probed the furthest reaches of their instruments, through embouchure and other means of creating hitherto unheard timbres and textures.
But that Norwegian axis of musicians represents but a small portion of the artists out there today, exploring the possibilities of marrying instrumental expansion with, for some, the expansive, cinematic potential of applying technology...not as an add-on but as an extension of their chosen instrument(s). Artists like guitarist Robert Fripp and his current eight-piece incarnation of King Crimson: make new music out of old, in part, through the application of technology—one of the group's founding premises, in fact—creating a truly seamless integration of instrumental mastery and technological innovation.
Guitarist Mark Wingfield, Touch Guitarist Markus Reuter, bassist Yaron Stavi and drummer Asaf Sirkis' debut as a group, The Stone House, is another example of blending clear virtuosity with a collective imagination that allows for the expansion of the music through textural, rather than just harmonic, melodic or rhythmic means. That's not to say The Stone House's six all-improvised, non-overdubbed, "live in the studio" tracks—seven, if you're talking about the downloadable version of the album, which adds the five-minute bonus track, "Nepheline," whose trance-inducing atmospherics gradually pick up steam when Sirkis enters, turning the piece into a dense, near-chaotic closer not for the faint-of-heart—are unapproachable.
Not unlike Rava's statement about the state of free music today, The Stone House may have its moments of anarchy, but it also has its periods of calming tranquility. Reuter's Touch Guitar—a two-handed tapped instrument similar, in concept, to the Chapman Stick played by King Crimson bassist Tony Levin, a partner with Reuter in another improv-heavy progressive group, Stick Men—introduces the album-opening "Rush" with volume pedal-swelling, delay-driven notes and chords that interweave and overlay into a sonic cloud, creating a context for Sirkis and Stavi to enter and begin driving the piece with a muscular, unrelenting pulse. Both Israeli expats that have, for roughly the past two decades, lived in London where, in addition to leading active solo careers, they've played with top-drawer artists including jazz-related artists like fellow Israeli emigrant Gilad Atzmon, Tim Garland and Gwilym Simcock, as well as more progressive-leaning musicians such as Robert Wyatt and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, The Stone House is not music that swings in a conventionally "jazz" way, but it does have moments where it clearly swings, nevertheless...just in its own fashion.
That the collective resume of this group of rising star musicians includes everything from more clearly definable jazz to something that can only be described as progressive music, even if it doesn't possess the signatures that most associate with the genre (though some string samples at the end of "Fjords de Catalyuna" provide a textural link), means that The Stone House is a truly unique record in its undercurrents from a multiplicity of musical perspectives, even if the overall vibe leans towards the similar but different kind of progressive improvisational music that Reuter makes in Stick Men.
Stavi may play electric fretless on this session, but he's equally impressive on double bass and the fretted electric variety. Sirkis' kit is often a mad scientist's hybrid that includes, along with conventional kit components, anything from gourds to the hang made famous by Portico Quartet, whether he's in a more introspective trio with pianist Glauco Venier, the linguistically inimitable Lighthouse Trio with Garland and Simcock, or the more kickass fusion set, along with Stavi, on Mark Wingfield's superb but somewhat overlooked Proof of Light (MoonJune, 2015). But here, he seems largely focused on a conventional drum set.
As for Wingfield, while it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between the guitarist and Reuter, there's little doubt that the mind-bending, psychedelia-driven wah-laden, heavily overdriven and feedback-infused solo in the middle of the groove-heavy "Silver" contains some of the guitarist's finest moments of the set, while the solo that follows—bolstered, as it is, by Wingfield's grabbed-from-the-ether pattern, Stavi's pedal tone and Sirkis' increasingly muscular playing—is pure Reuter, as he creates infinitely sustaining lines and outrageous leaps into the stratosphere.
That this album was recorded in but a single day at La Case Murada in Catalunya, Spain makes the intrinsic chemistry on The Stone House all the more remarkable, even though there are preexisting musical connections in Stavi's work with Sirkis—extended even further in their collaboration on Wingfield's Proof of Light. Even better news? With Wingfield's arrival in Spain delayed, Reuter, Stavi and Sirkis went ahead and recorded for another full day, laying down another full album of music that will be coming, also on MoonJune, later this year. Both sessions speak to the remarkable ears possessed by everyone in the group. Clearly this is a group that listens as much as it plays, with the interaction between Wingfield and Reuter's similarly delay-driven, volume pedal-swelled lines on the rubato, evocative and imagination-inducing "Fjords de Catalunya" but one example of how these musicians effortlessly anticipate, respond to and use opportunity as a starting point for further collective exploration.
This may be freely improvised music but is more akin to the philosophy of spontaneous composition; how, even though nobody in the group knows where the music is going to go when they pick up their instruments, there is still an overriding sense of purpose here, with countless points where one, two, three or all four of the players coalesce into something that suggests predetermination where there truly is none.
Referring, again, back to Rava, The Stone House evokes a broad range of emotions through melodic, harmonic, rhythmic...and textural...means. Anything is allowed, and while individual predilections certainly color the result—Reuter, for example, being a soundscapist of the highest order—the end result is a set of seven compositions created in-the-moment, with everything from ethereal atmospherics and jagged landscapes to angular lines and singable melodies; hard-driving grooves and no-time crescendoes to flowing rubato streams; brief but telling glimpses of overt virtuosity in an "egos checked at the door" approach to music-making; and hints of influences ranging from interlocking guitar parts and irregular meters à la King Crimson, and Brian Eno-inspired ambient audioscapes, to the freer side of the late jazz trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and trace elements of David Torn's dense musical continuum.
The CD version sounds terrific, but the CD quality download offers that added bonus track as an incentive, as does the high res download at 24-bit/88.2KHz, which sounds even better: a broader soundstage, greater detail and lots more oomph.
It's an album that breaks many rules, but could only be made by four musicians who not only learned them first, but continue to apply them even as they find ways to push past them into new terrain. Completely unclassifiable, The Stone House is a record that will challenge many preconceptions while still being rooted in enough of the approachable to render its appeal to fans of progressive music, free improvisation with a purpose, and use of technology to create new sonic combinations that, when brought together with everyone's innate ability to find form in the most abstract empyrean reaches, has resulted in a career-defining record for everyone involved.
Track Listing: Rush; Four Moons; Silver; Fjords de Catalunya; Tarasque; Bona Nit Señor Rovira; Nepheline (bonus track, download-only).
Personnel: Mark Wingfield: guitar; Markus Reuter: Touch Guitars® AU8; Yaron Stavi: fretless bass; Asaf Sirkis: drums.
Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Moonjune Records | Style: Beyond Jazz