About three and a half years ago, I passed along some thoughts on a young, up-and-coming trombone player from Switzerland, Samuel Blaser. His current release of the time and his second overall, named Pieces Of Old Sky, presented a trombonist stretching to the outer limits of modern jazz. I opined back then that he sports a technique more apt to remind others of Grachan Moncur III before fellow La Chaux-de-Fonds native Raymond Droz. Since then, Blaser has co-headlined records with Paul Motian and Michael Blake and made one very highly praised record with his own new quartet, Boundless (2011), which unveiled a ridiculously potent international band featuring Swiss bassist Bänz Oester, French guitarist Marc Ducret and American drummer Gerald Cleaver in a collection of live performances picked from different gigs. Blaser earned a great deal of props for this record, and rightly so.
The dramatic rise in stature for Blaser since Pieces Of Old Sky comes even as he maintains a drums/bass/guitar/trombone band format, but by taking a look at where Blaser is musically as he prepares to release the Boundless follow-up stateside, I find that Blaser took some discreet but crucial steps that moved him up a level or two on his game. He got more interested in not just what notes were played but how they sounded. And, he sharpened his skill in composing more thoroughly while at the same time allowing more freedom. The final piece was to assemble a band that fully embraced those ideals, and with Oester, Ducret and Cleaver, he got just that.
As The Sea is the second straight album with this lineup, and carrying over the personnel intact from album to album is a first for Blaser. But As The Sea is not quite Boundless Redux. Again culled from live performances but from the same show, As The Sea is Blaser tightening up his compositions with more scripted directions for where the band needed to go. That they’re being handed more challenging assignments than before is a product of the togetherness the four have developed, and it’s a togetherness of an uncommon time. Blaser didn’t pick guys who sounded like him or approached music like he does, he went out to get guys who challenged the music, challenged Blaser’s measured, pitch-perfect approach on trombone, and challenged the whole notion of what a jazz quartet is supposed to sound like.
Ducret, a veteran of Tim Berne’s various ensembles and a longtime prolific leader of his own, is responsible for much of the left field sonorities of this band, and he assumes every role possible with a guitar. At the beginning of “As The Sea, Part 1,” he’s scraping and muting strings, and by the middle of the song he’s cutting loose on one of his wonderfully eccentric improvising runs. On “Part 2,” he’s jamming against Cleaver’s backbeat the twisted way Marc Ribot might do it and often pairs up with Oester to assumed percussionist duties (as on “Part 3”). Oester himself isn’t afraid to expand the function of his instrument well beyond its conventional roles; he provides harmonic support whenever everyone else has gone off the deep end, conjures up odd timbres for dramatic effects, and introduces “Part 3” with an array of plucks, clipped notes and softly skittish tones. He will even engage in unison lines, as he does with Blaser at the beginning of “Part 2.”
Cleaver’s function is mainly as the instigator. Blaser’s compositions rely a lot on flow and cadence and Cleaver pushes them along, sometimes with a relentlessness you rarely here from him anywhere else. Indeed, this is some of the most inspired playing from a drummer who needs no extra motivation to play at a world-class level. You can hear his multi-rhythms eventually coax Blaser to come outside and get wanton on “Part 1,” power “Part 2” with a layered rock beat, going one-on-one with Blaser later in the same song and match Ducret blow by blow during the guitarist’s unhinged experimental rock solo during “Part 4.”
As it’s probably clear by now, most of the individual achievements have to do with how they interact with the others in a band, which validates the leadership of Blaser. He tops his aforementioned unison run with his bassist with a four-way unison that begins “Part 4.” Ever thinking outside the proverbial box as a composer, Blaser took his inspiration for “Part 1” from a tuba obbligato from a 19th century opera by Richard Wagner, and “Part 4” cribs the unusual rhythmic patterns of the Indian Tihi. Both are just a couple single facets within these four songs that each contains plenty of them. The complexity and the mood variations from angular textures to dense near-chaos challenges listeners as well as participants, but I rather enjoy the unusual intonations and sheer musicianship required to pull this off…in front of a live audience, no less.
As The Sea drops in the U.S. on March 5, by hatOLOGY Records. Visit Samuel Blaser’s website for more info.
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Feature photo by John Guillemin.