Much of the power and intrigue on Uncharted Territories is in the texture of these versatile musicians.
Uncharted Territories lives up to its name, demonstrating that all-world jazz bassist Dave Holland still has as much avant-garde in his soul as he did back in the 1960s and 1970s when he was recording freely improvised music at the edge of an era.
Since those early days, Holland became a jazz standard bearer, but he always did it with individual style. After “graduating” from Miles Davis’s great late-‘60s quintet, he took up cause with Anthony Braxton, Sam Rivers, and many other firebrand players whose styles married structure to nonconventional, open improvisation. Uncharted Territories matches Holland with three fascinating partners from today’s daring music scene. The result sounds fully integrated despite this band representing a fusion of scenes, locations and approaches.
The saxophonist here is Evan Parker, the English musician whose audacious recordings regularly challenge even open-minded ears. The environment suits him fine, as everything here appears to be freely improvised, with no written themes, yet he sounds new here—not tamed by his slightly more conventional American colleagues, but perhaps aware that this date is not his and therefore in the mood to connect rather than bury himself in his own musical obsessions.
Aside from Holland, the two other Americans on the date are percussionist Ches Smith and modern keyboard master Craig Taborn, both part of the vital New York scene that bridges tradition, tricky and highly structured New Jazz modernism, and daring free playing. Taborn started out accompanying the post-bop virtuoso James Carter, but he is equally at home playing free duets with Kris Davis or playing free-funk electric workouts in Holland’s Prism band. Smith has been playing with everyone on the scene lately, from Mr. Bungle (and that band’s bassist, Trevor Dunn) to alto saxophonist Darius Jones, from composer-guitarist Mary Halvorson to Tim Berne’s acclaimed Snakeoil band. This band, therefore, can move in just about any direction, and it does.
Though all the music here is improvised, there is an open lyricism that pervades nearly all of the relatively brief (usually about five minute) performances. “QT13”, for example, is a light-filled conversation that finds Smith playing vibes and other percussion as Taborn weighs in with his most percussive performance. Parker is quiet and gentle as he weaves amidst the chatter and ringing tones that the rest of the band discovers. Because this set consists of 23 different performances, it is pleasing to find not only quartets but also duos and trios.
There are three duos, for example, featuring just Parker and Holland, and they are strong in different ways. On one, Holland plays mostly with a bow, creating a set of DNA strands—weaving lines that curve and double-back against each other. On another, with Holland plucking and staying more completely on the bottom, the effect is that of a rhythmic tension, as time seems to be established by the bass, then stolen away by Parker’s staccato attack.
On the tracks where Taborn lays out, we hear a more traditional saxophone/bass/percussion conversation, something that has roots in many prior recordings by Sonny Rollins or David Murray. The Holland/Smith rhythm section doesn’t often “walk” in a traditional way, but it has a pliant sense of time that rarely sounds labored or harsh. As a result, there is a rubbery swing that is at the heart of even the more avant-garde passages. There is also a piano trio opportunity here with Parker sitting out, but it is hardly a standard piano trio performance, with gestural playing giving way to a quick, rippling set of figures by Smith and Taborn that sound perfect together.
The longest performance on Uncharted Territories is the closing quartet, a mysterious and open performance on which no one musician seems like the main topic. In rushes of urgency, one player or another moves to the front, only to give way to someone else moments later. Pick your metaphor—it’s a kaleidoscope, a collage, a landscape, an experimental film. But you feel you are in the realm of that kind of art: the kind that is not direct or obvious but brimming with layers.
Much of the power and intrigue on Uncharted Territories is in the texture of these versatile musicians. “Organ-Vibes,” for example, takes advantage of Taborn’s keyboard versatility and Smith’s percussive variety to create a soundscape that shivers with interest even though there is not strong melody. The organ is a drone and a hum, a series of whispered electronic secrets, while Smith rings and rattles, sometimes a still lake and sometimes raindrops.
Nearly everyone on this recording plays themselves downward, into the mix rather than pushing out front, including the leader, whose bass often vanishes into the larger sound. Parker, usually such a force, blends into something bigger. It is not uncharted, of course. This kind of music has been made for decades. But these musicians, bridging generations and shades of approach, came into the studio egoless and made something that is simply a better version of free, spontaneously composed music. Better, at least, than we usually hear: symphonic, intimate, careful and beautiful.