There's a sense of mystery, majesty and daring surrounding this remarkably deep studio session, the first of its kind for the adventurous renegade label RareNoiseRecords. Each piece resounds with such compelling, conversational, in-the-moment playing that it sets a new standard in collective improvisation. "I believe it raises the bar for what improvised music can achieve on record," says pianist Jamie Saft of Red Hill, the group's mesmerizing debut on the RareNoise label.
Fueled by the urgent high note blasts and expressive muted trumpet work of avant-garde icon Wadada Leo Smith and underscored by an uncanny group-think of RareNoise stalwarts Saft (Metallic Taste of Blood, Slobber Pup, Plymouth, The New Standard) on keyboards, Joe Morris (Plymouth, Slobber Pup, One) on acoustic bass and Balazs Pandi (Obake, Metallic Taste of Blood, Slobber, Pup, One) on drums, Red Hill is a kind of clarion call for the new avant-garde. "It's rare that four improvisers with such a broad depth of approach are given complete freedom to construct an album such as this," adds Saft. "I think there is nothing like Red Hill. It is a wholly unique and previously unheard shape for an album. The session was totally improvised. No sketches or preconceptions, really no discussion at all before playing."
A dynamic, highly intuitive offering, Red Hill is full of tensions and releases and characterized by dramatic use of space juxtaposed with turbulent crescendos by the provocative collective. That this music really breathes and flows organic is due in no small part to the incredibly sensitive, remarkably flexible playing of drummer Balazs, who covers a very wide spectrum on this recording. "Balazs has a sense of freedom that is rare in improvised music," says Saft. "He brings a depth of knowledge of both hardcore and metal music as well as free jazz and noise styles. He is of the moment and always pushing forward. He's a deep listener and a sympathetic thinker, so improvising with Balazs always flows properly." Saft has similarly high praise for Pandi's rhythm tandem mate, bassist Joe Morris. "His approach to the acoustic bass is completely unique and like nothing else in this world. Joe pushes the music into uncharted territory while sustaining the flow brilliantly. The idea of 'Snake Time' is in full effect here, and Joe and Balazs together create truly unique and crucial spaces to frame the improvising."
Pandi's sensitive, highly interactive brushwork and coloristic cymbals underscore Smith's lyrical muted trumpet playing on the sparse opener, "Gneiss." And yet, when that piece builds to a turbulent crescendo near the end, the drummer is right there to fuel the frantic proceedings. With mallets, Pandi engages in a conversational duet with Smith at the outset to "Janus Face," a piece that evolves from slow, open rubato statements to dense explosions of tumultuous free jazz sparked by Saft's Cecil Taylor-esque attack on the piano. Saft switches to Fender Rhodes electric piano to attain another color on "Agpaitic," a conversational romp that features some aggressive bowing on the bass by Morris. And Pandi supplies the rolling free pulse beneath Morris' trance-like bass ostinato and Smith's edgy trumpet excursions on "Tragic Wisdom," which also has intrepid improvisor Saft plucking strings inside his piano.
Silence is the watchword on "Debts of Honor," a thoughtful improvisation which evolves gradually over the course of nine minutes from zen-like tranquility to intense crescendo paced by Pandi's relentless drumming and Saft's spiky piano comping and is highlighted by some of Smith's most powerful blowing of the session. The trumpeter begins the closing number, "Arfvedsonite," with a high-note blast before Morris enters with some insistent arco work to create an edgy texture. Pandi's rolling pulse with mallets and Morris' resounding bass tones quickly establish a solid launching pad for Wadada's stratospheric improvisations on trumpet, bringing this spell-binding collection to a ferocious conclusion.
"I have worked with Wadada in the past both as a pianist and also as an studio engineer," says Saft of the revered elder statesman of this Red Hill session. "I was thrilled to record and mix Wadada's large ensemble album Lake Biwa as well as contribute some piano to it. I've worked closely with Wadada in the studio in the past and witnessed his incredible focus and deeply intuitive way of putting together albums. So it was thrilling for me to get the opportunity to put together this album with a lead voice as strong and important as Wadada's. My approach to this record was to accompany and support him as deeply and as intuitively as possible. All decisions were made in service of the whole."
Adds Morris, "I first heard Wadada in my hometown of New Haven in 1973-74. I've always paid attention to him, heard all of his work, read his writings. We've known each other for more than 30 years but this was the first time we've had the chance to work together. I think of Wadada as a master trumpeter/improviser and as the inventor of his own methodology. He has a completely unique sound and way of playing. He uses space and pulse in very sophisticated ways, and he always plays everything from the deepest part of his being. He's a beautiful person, artist and musician. He always brings out the best in everyone around him."
With the iconic Smith inspiring the rest of the crew of Saft, Morris and Pandi on this freewheeling session, the four daring improvisers hit a stirring accord on Red Hill, their monumental debut on RareNoise Records.
Debts Of Honor