Free Fall - Gray Scale (SMJZ, 2010) ****a1/2
By Paul Acquaro
Free Fall is a trio of Ken Vandermark, Havard Wiik, and Ingebrigt Haker Flaten on clarinets, piano and bass respectively. The trio, apparently modeled after the early 1960s Jimmy Giuffre's Trio with Paul Bley and Gary Peacock, has delivered a challenging and sophisticated effort that reveals itself more with each listen.
The albums cover, a stark grey scale image of a pier stretching into the water is iconic for the music within. The depth and interconnectedness of the music increases as you wade out further into the abstract melodies and harmonies. This is music with sharp angels and twisting contours, and its contrasts can both attract and repel, tantalizingly so.
'Lividus' begins quietly, with squiggles of clarinet, splashes of piano and punches of bass. Soon, the sound becomes denser, if not less diffuse, and the clarinet expresses a great range in its melodies. 'Griseus' is more percussive, the clarinet bleating, bass slapping and piano runs providing abstract but purposeful harmony. 'Ravius' showcases the subtle, low hushed tones of the bass clarinet with sprinkles of piano and atmospheric upright bass as the tune builds, slowly revealing more textures. The 8 plus minute 'Cinerius,' to me, is the centerpiece of the album. Freely melodic clarinet runs are contrasted with abstract ramblings by the piano, and dark underpinnings by the bass, only later to explode into a controlled but devastating burn. Here, as in the other songs, the seeming independence of each player is actually very much interdependence and together they cohere into something very free and exciting.
Gray Scale is a provocative name, and at times the music reflects stark atmosphere of cover but transcends it as well with colorful musicianship and daring explorations. Though not an easy album to digest on the first pass, it leaves a lingering taste and compells repeated listening.