Jeff Cosgrove moves from leading the open-ended scores of the late legend Paul Motian to blissful full-on spontaneity with two of the living masters of the improvised form. The drummer who helmed an unusual quartet named Motian Sickness that rendered some of the final Motian compositions before his November, 2011 death now leads a conventional trio in songs mostly made up on the spot.
But there’s nothing really that conventional when the pianist and bassist in this piano/bass/drums trio are Matthew Shipp and William Parker, and I strongly suspect that’s the whole point of Cosgrove’s latest endeavor. Alternating Current, out on June 10, 2014, is Cosgrove undertaking a challenge of a different nature than that of Motion’s compositions. That is, until we reach the last song, which I’ll explain in a minute.
As fascinating as Cosgrove’s Motian Sickness project was, though, it’s probably more useful to compare Alternating Current to Ivo Perelman’s recent releases. He, too, had recently led a date of pure improv — a whole bunch of dates, actually — that involved at various times Shipp and Parker, sometimes together, sometimes not. However, Perelman is a saxophonist; Cosgrove leads from a percussion instrument, not a tonal one.
Actually, this notion of the drums being a non-tonal instrument not entirely accurate, as any student of Motian knows. “Bridges of Tomorrow,” which occupies well over half of the album, is launched by the soft, low-toned patter of tom-toms, a cue readily picked up on by Shipp and Parker. When Parker shifts from bowed to plucked bass, he becomes nearly one with Cosgrove. When Cosgrove transforms his distant thunder into nearby thunder, Shipp and Parker also ratchet up the intensity and know just when to reel themselves back and return from temperamental to meditative from the slightest of cues.
Cosgrove continues to navigate the trio through innumerable variations of mood without even touching his cymbals until fourteen minutes in. Shipp, who had been maintaining mostly fully chorded progressions that walk down a staggered but sure path, maintains this complexion even as Cosgrove breaks the seal on the rest of his drum set, but the drummer nonetheless changed the texture of the song. Parker gets extended time in solitude, which he uses to project from both Cosgrove’s pulses and Shipp’s patterns. Another interesting moment occurs when Shipp briefly breaks out into a swing groove, although tangentially so, but the rhythm section holds fast to its unbounded way. Never does this monstrosity of a song ever veer off its path, in spite of all the turns and changes.
“Alternating Current,” dedicated to another forward-thinking jazz drummer Andrew Cyrille, contrasts from the prior performance by Shipp’s hopeful, springtime opening, as Cosgrove hangs way back and Parker again begins with bow in hand. Though Shipp makes some rapid runs, his touch is light and doesn’t upset the overall vibe, which by this time has Cosgrove brushing his snare to pair perfectly with Shipp’s swift runs.
“Victoria” is the ‘brief’ performance running under six minutes, but contains the most pure beauty. Here’s a direct link back to Motian, who wrote this song. Cosgrove selected this underrated, fragile piece of musical poetry from Motian’s 1974 Tribute album and let Shipp and Parker inhabit the song’s spirit, which they do well enough to make this take on the song stand up to the original. Here’s a little trivia for you: “Victoria” is the first time either Parker or Shipp had ever played a Motian song.
Impulsive but attentive, free but not wild, Alternating Current is Jeff Cosgrove once again standing out in the company of greats. That makes him pretty damned great himself.