THE BLUE SERIES CONTINUUM : GoodandEvil Sessions (Thirsty Ear THI57134.2)
DAVID S. WARE STRING ENSEMBLE : Threads (Thirsty Ear. THI 57137.2)

Thirsty Ear have been putting out some of the most interesting jazz and jazz-related music I've heard in recent times. In particular they have been instrumental in bringing the work of Matthew Shipp to my ears. So I was pretty chuffed to hear these two latest offerings which both feature the man himself amid some illustrious company.

The Blue Series Continuum is the inaugural set from what will be an open-ended, on-going project. Rather than focus on a leader, as some previous Thirsty Ear recordings have, it will feature a rotating group of musicians. It also intends to mix jazz with other diverse musical styles and some of the personnel present have been doing just that already. For instance, both Shipp and William Parker have been involved in a variety of cross-genre recordings. And you can be fairly sure that the results of such a collaboration will be worth more than a cursory listen.

Using both conventional instruments, e.g. trumpet, two trombones and keyboards, with judicious sampling and turntable manipulation they create a dense, diverse weave of sounds. From the opening track you can tell that this is fertile ground. They blend taut horn figures with limpid electric piano and various grooves from drummers, Danny Blume (also a guitarist) and Chris Kelly. The clarity of Roy Campbell's trumpet cuts its incisive way through everything.

There are moments of pure jazz piano from Shipp following the titanic theme of ´Then Again' which features the twin trombones of Alex Lodico and Josh Roseman. But the mix also makes use of the rhythmic scratchings from those turntables fused with relentlessly inventive drumming. At times the whole ensemble is one huge rhythm unit combining to deliver an ecstatic sound.

On ´The Stakeout' disembodied voice samples and scratches fade in and out while Shipp sets his uncluttered keyboard stylings against the ghostly twang of Blume's echo-laden guitar. Imagine a jazzier Portishead. Parker's supple bass grounds the ensemble, occasionally surfacing to make some muscular interjections. His playing eloquently states the case for less being more.

Elsewhere, they further explore and develop the spacious qualities of their sound, using the production techniques of the duo GoodandEvil, alongside the virtuoso playing of the horns, keyboard and bass. Obviously the work of the producers is crucial in taking this outside the realm of ´just another jazz record' into something more atmospheric and challenging. Listen to the final track, ´Sweetbitter' for an eclectic, unclassifiable brew of electronic percussion, mournful bowed bass and muted trombone. By anyone's standards this is a fruitful collision of ideas from players who are clearly empathetic and I look forward to more.

A ´string ensemble' may not sound very ´jazz' but when David S. Ware is putting it together you might expect a powerful free jazz sensibility to inform the proceedings. Include players like the aforementioned Shipp and Parker plus Mat Maneri and Guillermo E. Brown and you can expect some vigorous ensemble work and strong individual performances. Whatever your preconceptions there are some surprises here.

For a start it isn't entirely rooted in the free jazz tradition since these are actually compositions by Ware in the main. The title track is one indication of what these guys are offering. The strings, including violinist Daniel Bernard Roumain, construct a shifting web of sound that hovers, grounded by Parker's bowed bass. The tone is elegiac, its melancholy is seductive and it seems a long way from any definition of jazz. But sometimes you have to jettison the confines of genre and just enjoy the results. There is a similar ambience too on the aptly titled, ´Carousel Of Lightness', where the strings seem to hang in the air, both viola and violin drifting into the foreground then receding as Shipp's synth washes over it all. Brown's drumming is at its most inventive, sending out ceaseless waves of rhythm.

If some grittier interplay is what you are after then listen to either ´Weave', there are two of them. Ware duets with Brown's creative percussion and his tenor is lithe and exploratory, keening and visceral, reaching into the instrument's depths. It is a raw voicing, closely miked and intimate. Both men exhibit an almost telepathic percussion. Such intensity may echo the work of Coltrane and RashiedAli, among others, and is testament to the complementary pairing of sax and drums.

The strings also blend well on ´Sufic Passages' where bass and drums lay down a solid foundation for the viola and violin, swooping and soaring, to weave an ecstatic improvisation which sometimes reminded me of part of that old John McLaughlin recording ´My Goal's Beyond'. It is a tumultuous sound, controlled and joyous.

Apart from the aforementioned tracks Ware doesn't project a great solo presence here but lets his compositions speak for him. It is a powerful and moving record, maybe even ´spiritual' in a way, and shows 6 players clearly in tune with each other and enjoying it.

All power and praise to Thirsty Ear for these. Let's hope there is more to come.

© 2003 Paul Donnelly