By Guy Peters
I have a soft spot for the bass clarinet. The quirky look of the instrument certainly has something to do with that. Also the fact that it has rather few practitioners and the realisation that some of them (like Rudi Mahall and Louis Sclavis) do tremendous things with it. Of course, there's also the peculiar, bleating sound, especially in the lower register. As it happens, the latter is almost absent on this third album by Jason Stein's trio, on which the leader does so much more than stressing the instrument's extremes.
Like its predecessor Three Less Than Between" (Clean Feed, 2009), it marks quite a departure from the debut A Calculus Of Loss" (2008), on which Stein and drummer Mike Pride were joined by cello player Kevin Davis. The album continues the more traditional approach of the second album (on which bassist Jason Roebke replaced Davis), while sounding even more 'traditional.' There's not much aggression, dissonance and bleating going on here, while Stein's lighter approach stresses the melodic qualities of the songs. Several of these have a carefree, almost breezy quality that makes the album a joy to listen to, without ever succumbing to blandness or predictability. And Stein sounds, more than ever, like a regular clarinetist.
Opener Crayons For Crammy" immediately makes its case, with a catchy melody and appropriately subtle backing by Roebke and Pride. It is music with an original yet natural flow, creativity in abundance and a good-natured atmosphere. The album also has its thornier moments, like Arch And Shipp" (starting off with unpredictable probing by the rhythm section and a venture into free jazz) and Man Or Ray" (sudden starts & stops and an almost cartoonish atmosphere). These pieces sometimes hint at more radical terrain (just like Cash, Couch & Camper"), but usually end up finding a refreshing balance between the tradition and the experiment.
To prove that the trio is still capable of setting the house on fire, the album also includes a live version of Miss Izzy" (from the previous album), which has a tougher, more muscular style that ends the album on a forceful note. Make no mistake: these guys have the chops to move into any direction they wish to explore, but the willingness to include a more conventional basis and turn it into something exciting and entirely refreshing, as they see fit, makes it a compelling delight from start to finish and an album that only benefits from repeated listenings. If it were vinyl, I'd need a second copy in the meantime. Jovial interplay, gentlemanly adventure, an embarrassment of riches!
* The trio is currently touring in Europe at this very moment. Check out Stein's website for the dates. For the Belgians out there: this Saturday, the band will play at Kunstencentrum BELGIE (Hasselt), along with Cinc (Vandermark/Lytton/Wachsmann).
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