I don't know if it's a trend of not, but lately I've noticed a lot more unconventional trios in jazz. By unconventional" I mean without the bassist, and the usual premise I've heard for doing this is to allow more freedom. Trying out uncommon configurations is an interesting and often stimulating tactic used to open up the music and go down new corridors when we live in a time when there are so few previously unexplored vistas left. One player who thrives on experimenting with unusual instrumental groupings is that Chicago cornetist Rob Mazurek. We've already covered several new records of his in the last couple of years under various names, and here we are again checking out yet another new front he's opened up. This one is by a new group ofyes, a trioof cornet/vibraphone/drums, called Starlicker.
Like many Rob Mazurek projects, this one's got a basis in another Rob Mazurek project. A couple of years back, he convened a five-member combo for Sound Is (2009), featuring vibes master Jason Adasiewicz, drummer John Herndon, electric bassist Matthew Lux and acoustic bassist Josh Abrams. You read that right: two bass players. Furthermore, Mazurek tactfully employed electronic washes and insertions like he so often has done effectively for various Chicago Underground configurations, giving the music a heavier, spookier feel. But the original notion for that record was for Mazurek to make an all-acoustic bass-less trio album; in the end he called in Lux and Abrams.
Last year, he decided to revisit the original idea, and in bringing back Adasiewicz and Herndon, wrote the tunes more quickly, evident in the nearly-improvisational nature of these songs as they ultimately are presented in these recordings. Mazurek didn't build full melodies, at least not in the sense we think of melodies. It's not exactly modal, either. His compositions are loose sets of ideas set with few parameters, allowing everyone to express themselves fully, and his two Starlicker bandmates are on the case. Having also worked with the leader on the Exploding Star Orchestra, Isotope 217 and Sinister Luck Ensemble, to name a few, there were no need for introductions, and the band went right to work on his new batch of songs, performing them live at first and then recording them in a studio last March. Double Demon, out tomorrow, is the result.
There's no mistaking that these are the same guys who made the Sound Is record, but pulling out the basses caused some changes in their respective roles beneath the surface. Adasiewicz, who is the most dynamic vibes player of his generation and the most important one to emerge at least since Stefon Harris, shows just why he's such a vital musician: providing harmonic counterpoints to Mazurek he exploits the range and the percussive element of his instrument to provide that vital link between the drums and horn and making up for the lack of bass without having to approximate a low-end bass sound. But, just as importantly, the missing bass provides a wide-open view of the drums, and on these sessions, Herndon is a monster. He explodes over much of the album, devising poly rhythmical beats along the way and plays a major role in putting the music outside of confines of whatever label you try to attach to it. Mazurek is able to settle in his usual straight, steady style on cornet, playing notes as precisely on trills or a rapid flurry of notes as when he's playing them in an unhurried manner.
None of the six songs here run extensively long, except maybe for the 9:22 long Triple Hex," which helps in absorbing this mysterious, often dark music. The conciseness seems to feed the urgently and makes each musical statement they create more meaningful. These are ensemble-centered performances, with no one taking long solos, and sometimes two of them are improvising at once. Vodou Cinque," with its vibes/muted horn engagement followed by an enchanting African groove meted out by Herndon makes it the pick of the litter but all the songs are appealing in a similar way.
Rob Mazurek may someday run out of ideas on coming up with another interesting variation to his approach to music, but Starlicker shows that his creative tank is still on full for now. Double Demon comes courtesy of Chicago based Delmark Records.
And if you need more examples of new and fresh sounding bass-free jazz trios, just stay tuned right here...