Posts Tagged ‘adam armstrong’
I continue my exploration of “jazz” music that inhabits a genre best described as “other” with It Would be Easier If, a new album released in the United States on November 9 by Ken Thomson and the ensemble Slow/Fast. Ken Thomson is a Brooklyn-based composer, clarinetist, and saxophonist who writes fully-formed and notated jazz compositions that are then fleshed out by Slow/Fast—trumpeter Russ Johnson, bassist Adam Armstrong, guitarist Nir Felder, and drummer Fred Kennedy.
Generally speaking, I think that once the genre has been identified, in order to introduce the listener to the music itself, it’s best to leave genre classifications far behind and simply enjoy the well-crafted music or what it is, irrespective of what label someone attaches to it.
And so we have the highly provocative It Would Be Easier If, by Ken Thomson and Slow/Fast, an album comprised of five tracks, nearly all of them at least 9 minutes long.
“Kleine Helmet” features a ruminative melody in the trumpet and bass clarinet, which proves to be an inspired timbre combination. The texture and overall mood here is illuminated by the inclusion of Nir Felder’s electric guitar, with chords that waft in the air like some welcome and lingering fragrance. Interestingly, as the opening track, “Kleine Helmet” acts as a palette cleanser of sorts, alleviating the effects of whatever other music you were just listening to, or whatever other activity you were engage in prior to this.
After the almost meditative nature of the opener, the listener previously uninitiated in the work of Ken Thomson may find “Goddamn You, Ice Cream Truck” a real shock. The immediate auditory assault of distorted guitar more commonly found in alternative rock and certain derivations of hardcore is quickly joined by the twin riffs of trumpet and clarinet, first in unison with one another. But then the instruments diverge, both rhythmically and melodically, as chromaticism creeps in to add further tension. I’m not sure that I’ve ever consciously thought of jazz as aggressive music (and certainly not angst-ridden), but while listening to “Goddamn You,” that’s exactly what I thought. The brilliance of the rhythmic precision here cannot be overstated. Thomson sees the congruities of jazz and hard rock, in both the licks and the rhythms they employ, and perhaps more importantly the emotions both musics can embody.
Throughout, the drums are an indispensable constant, but with all the activity in the sonic foreground, the brilliance of Fred Kennedy on this song may go unnoticed at first. An extended improvised guitar solo from Nir Felder allows the listener to focus solely on the melody and the groove in which it nestles, at least temporarily.
Again in “Goddamn You, Ice Cream Truck,” Thomson’s intuition and compositional prowess comes to the fore—his uncanny sense of musical architecture, pacing, and interestingly, portion size. By this I mean that Thomson seems to understand that there is only so much the human ear can pick up on and latch onto at any given time, and with this in mind, presents his musical ideas succinctly and in digestible amounts. There is never “too much” sound, too much to listen to at any one time, and he never lingers on a particular theme longer than is prudent.
The song “No, no, no” begins with drummer Kennedy painting a decidedly more ambient and abstract landscape for the first 82 seconds of the song, before trumpet and clarinet chime in with harmonic drones that wash over the ear in ways that can be soothing one moment, slightly apprehension-building the next. The guitar rounds out the textural and timbre-related imbalances that come with the absence of palpable low-voice presence. A shorter drum solo interjects itself into the drone, and the full force of the drone dissipates, only slightly, to make room for a tasty sax outro. “No, no, no” is a striking composition worth poring over, beautiful and grating all at once. And as the median track on the album, it serves as the influential force of balance tying the other four pieces together.
“Wanderangst” sounds like the title suggests. The track starts off much like any other “standard” contemporary jazz piece, plus the petite twinkling of a glockenspiel. But these elements only lull the listener into a false sense of security. Any perceived meandering gets obliterated with frenzied licks that will cause severe melodic dizziness, even while the players articulate the notes with pinpoint accuracy and unmitigated intensity. Any further verbal explanation would not do this piece justice.
“It Would Be Easier If” is a perfectly acceptable closing track, but after four consecutive edge-of-your-seat musical microcosms, a first listen to this final song found it somehow lacking when compared to the dynamism of the others. That being said, the song ends in an unexpected place, and the result is a satisfying one that rewards repeat listens.
It Would Be Easier If is a crazily engaging set of musical compositions that demand equally engaged listening. Thomson takes his listeners on a sonic joyride that proves as meticulous and well-crafted as it is raucous and unpredictable. The lines between jazz, prog-rock, and hardcore/metal elements were never smeared with such blessed creativity as they are here. Thomson has a real knack for creating music that has momentum, a clear arc that communicates to the listener, “We’re going somewhere, and it’s going to be intriguing.”