Alexander Hawkins: Song Singular

Alexander Hawkins Ensemble: Step Wide, Step Deep

Dominic Lash Quartet: Opabinia

Raymond Macdonald & Marilyn Crispell: Parallel Moments

There are a couple of common threads running through this quartet of jazz releases, the first, obviously, being that they're all Babel products and secondly that piano plays a central role on each, with UK wunderkind Alexander Hawkins, co-leader of the Convergence Quartet and the Hammond organ trio Decoy, involved in three and long-time Anthony Braxton associate Marilyn Crispell the fourth. As a general rule, Babel releases amply repay the time and attention given to them, and that's never more true than in the case of this latest gathering.

The releases by Hawkins offer fascinating portraits of the artist as solo player and group participant. He's a remarkable pianist, one possessing staggering technical ability and a fecund imagination as both player and composer. By his own admission, composition and improvisation exist on a continuum; he's also a free player, free not so much in the sense of adhering to the free jazz tradition but more in the fundamental sense of liberation, of being always open to possibilities and amenable to whatever direction seems right for the moment. It's also understandable that Art Tatum and Duke Ellington would be Hawkins' self-avowed heroes, with the former a natural kindred spirit for his playing style and the latter a model for his approach to band leadership. Regardless, a word such as agile comes to mind when one listens to Hawkins play, but perhaps a better one is torrential. Notes pour forth in a constant deluge, and the listener is struck by Hawkins' bountiful reserves of energy.

That aforementioned free approach is documented powerfully on the solo outing's “The Way We Dance It Here” and “Joists, Distilled,” at times volcanic explorations more likely to invoke comparisons to Cecil Taylor than Ahmad Jamal. But as torrential as Hawkins' playing can be, Song Singular includes moments of delicacy, too, never more so than during the opening minutes of “Early Then, M.A.” and the ruminative passages of “Two Dormant, One Active.” It's important to note that though the pieces on Song Singular do evidence boundless freedom, they're not improvisations in the pure sense but rather compositional structures that allow for untold improvisational possibilities. It's this Tristano-like quality that comes through clearly during the bluesy “Stillness from 37,000 ft.,” “Distances Between Points,” and “Two Dormant, One Active,” to cite three examples. It's also telling that Song Singular's sole cover is Billy Strayhorn's “Take the A Train,” whose inclusion functions as an Ellington homage but more importantly as a demonstration of how new directions can be forged from tradition. The audacious re-imagining the pianist brings to the warhorse renders the original almost unrecognizable, even if traces of the tune ever so subtly remain.

As satisfying a listen as the solo album is, I'm drawn more to the ensemble recording, Step Wide, Step Deep, given the make-up of the band and the players involved. On this third ensemble outing, Hawkins surrounds himself with guitarist Otto Fischer (the sole holdover from the group featured on All There, Ever Out), violinist Dylan Bates, clarinetist Shabaka Hutchings, double bassist Neil Charles, and drummer Tom Skinner. Not only is it rare to hear a violinist featured in a jazz outfit, it's rarer still to hear one joined on the front-line by a clarinetist. It's a limber and flexible outfit, too, as evidenced by the ease with which it alternates between breezy vamps and slower passages.

The group's distinctive sound comes into immediate focus the moment the twelve-minute opener, “Step Wide, Step Deep - Space of Time Danced Thru,” rolls into view, with the unison head quickly giving way to some spirited bass clarinet skronk and like-minded freewheeling by Hawkins, Charles, and Skinner. Fischer contributes a strong solo turn, after which Bates, more Billy Bang than Jean-Luc Ponty, adds his own earthy statement. With Skinner dropping bombs, the musicians reconvene for a wailing coda that finds each throwing lines into the entangled mix. That incredible performance is a tough one to match, though the five subsequent settings come close. Certainly one of the more memorable pieces is “Listen/Glow,” an ever-evolving moodscape of expansive design to which all of the musicians contribute equally. Memorable for a different reason, “Advice” backs sweetly singing violin playing with a laid-back blues groove. Here and elsewhere, Bates shows himself to be a particularly fearless traveler but the others aren't far behind in that regard.

Step Wide, Step Deep isn't a blowing session, even if Hawkins grants his players ample room to flex their muscles and leave their imprint on the music. The leader's as much focused on compositional form as soloing on the fifty-three-minute date, and in that regard mixes things up stylistically, working some meditative moments in amongst the swinging cuts. A few pieces at least give the impression of being pure improvisations (e.g., “Forgiven Only Words Once” and “MO (-Ittoqqortoormiit)”), though it's more likely the case that Hawkins opted for comparatively more open-ended guidelines for the musicians to follow in such cases. On a note to the listener on the inner sleeve, Hawkins writes, “And please—if you get that far, let the album run to the very end.” To be frank, such a request is hardly necessary when the music on offer is as compelling as it is.

Hawkins also responds adaptably to different contexts, as shown by his playing in the Dominic Lash Quartet and on its debut album Opabinia. As it turns out, calling the contrabassist's set a jazz recording is a bit misleading; if anything, Opabinia plays more like a meticulously considered chamber-styled collection that collapses stylistic borders and mercurially sidesteps being locked down to any one idiom; in Lash's own words, “It would be odd if [jazz] didn't crop up in various projects, but I'm also sort of wary. I don't want to end up doing impressions of jazz.” On the ten-track album, the quartet, which came into being as a trio in 2009 with pianist Hawkins and percussionist Javier Carmona and expanded into its current form in 2011 with the addition of multi-reed player Ricardo Tejero, shows itself to be an elastic entity more than up to the challenge of navigating pathways through the leader's multi-directional compositions.

Lash wastes no time declaring that Opabinia (recorded in its entirety on January 16th, 2013) will be anything but a standard blowing session by opening the album with “Isthmus,” which expands from a stark, bowed intro into a slippery quartet exploration marked by hyperactive individual statements. By riffing on a blues pulse, “Waiting for Javier / Luzern” initially appears to distance itself from the obtuse abstraction of that opener, but it too quickly plunges down a limber free-jazz hole. And though Opabinia is in places restrained, the word hardly applies to the wild playing Hawkins and Tejero contribute to the piece. “Azalpho” eschews jazz rhythms for a drunken strut that's rendered even quirkier by the stop-start playing of the group and the bleat of Tejero's clarinet, while “Halt the Busterman” surprises in a different way by rolling out a laid-back funk groove, which Tejero proceeds to smear with smoky tenor sax musings. As is often the case on a bassist's date, Lash generously cedes the spotlight to his fellow musicians, though his playing is front and center during “Hallucigenia,” a brief duet with Tejero.

Such pieces provide ample listening pleasures of varying kinds, as does the adventurous, fifteen-minute closer, “Piano Part Two / Catachretic.” If anything, the piece almost tests the listener's patience by stretching the glacial opening section, wherein minimal statements by Hawkins are joined by the groan of Lash's bowing and guttural murmurs by Tejero, to ten minutes before segueing into a jazzier uptempo episode. Opabinia may not be a game-changer, but the quietly innovative recording is certainly one of which Lash can be proud, and that it's his first project as sole leader makes the result even more impressive.

A fascinating study in contrast is provided by the inclusion of Parallel Moments in this reviewed group, given how different American pianist Marilyn Crispell's playing sounds when heard after three albums featuring Hawkins. She's, of course, been a major player within contemporary improvised jazz circles since the late ‘70s and holds the distinction, among other things, of having played in groups led by Anthony Braxton and Reggie Workman. And though you'll often hear free jazz and avant garde mentioned when discussions of Crispell arise, Parallel Moments, a superb duets date that pairs Crispell with Scottish saxophonist and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra co-founder Raymond MacDonald, surprises for being so accessible. The album title is certainly a credible choice, but an even better one might have been Conversation, not only because it's the title of one of the other pieces but more importantly because it highlights the inspired exchanges that occur between the two in every one of the ten tracks.

“Longing” begins the fifty-five-minute album with a ballad performance that sees MacDonald releasing bluesy alto outpourings alongside understated chordal support from Crispell. “Illumination” similarly impresses for its emotional tone and for the memorable wail emitted by MacDonald near its outset. More characteristic of what one would expect from such a pairing is “Town and City Halls,” a labyrinthine exploration for piano and soprano sax, and the title track, a wild free jazz eruption that includes passages of Crispell aggressively rubbing the strings inside the piano.

Some pieces are miniatures (neither “Flame” nor “Distant Voices” cracks the two-minute mark), whereas others are extended journeys. At eleven minutes, “Conversation” allows for plentiful dialogue, of course, but also solo episodes, with both the pianist and saxophonist initially adopting a ruminative approach before freeing themselves with angular flourishes and blustery runs, respectively. The track title is, of course, aptly chosen, given that the two are heard both collegially responding to each other as well as combatively chattering at cross-purposes—much like an intense spoken exchange. The other long piece, “Notes in the Sky,” becomes at times a MacDonald showcase for the soprano swirl that flutters dizzyingly across Crispell's responsive base. The duets format is, of course, an especially promising choice when improvisers of such technical ability and imagination are involved, and Crispell and MacDonald are more than up to the challenge of playing with vigour and restraint in accordance with whatever the music demands.

April 2014