Heavy Ethics – Rhubarb (jazz/ fusion/ prself released, 2007, DD album, 1h 6m 9s
It says prog up there at the top, and that’s both a nod to the band’s self-identifications, and because this music is decidedly progressive, although, to be honest, if you’re looking for something that sounds like archetypal prog-rock this will probably sound like jazz to you. It has dissonances aplenty, and frequently hazy tonality, although it is never quite atonal, but for all Heavy Ethics’ avant-garde tendencies, these elements are contextualised by the vocabulary, and tend to read (to my ear at least) in the same way as the dense chromaticism of post-free modern jazz.
There are clear and present influences from outside the jazz world, both from modern art music, and from the brands of rock that bear its influence: as I write this sentence ‘Britney Sneer’ comes to an end and ‘Sum Of Its Balls’ begins, and both tunes are reminiscent of the genuinely creative end of popular music, with strong odours of Cardiacs and Zappa. However, it all seems grist to the mill of a jazz methodology: improvisation never sounds far away, even in the most tightly arranged passages, and more importantly, the music gives the impression of being a vehicle for the players as much as they are its medium.
The band is a piano trio, although the bass is electric, so it’s not quite a traditional jazz lineup. However, it eschews any shortcuts offered by the recording process, and in Rhubarb it presents a sequence of apparently live-in-the-studio performances, that are clearly far more concerned with documenting the band as a dynamic assemblage of musical minds, than with constructing or orchestrating a set of tracks. Christopher Norman sometimes puts his bass down in favour of a guitar, which he plays as though he was in the extreme upper register of a six or seven string bass, and when he does so, that’s exactly what happens: no overdubs, no bass.
Such an approach obviously stands or falls on the strength of its performances, but with players of this quality there’s a whole lot of standing, and any falling is entirely deliberate. Norman is a fluent, technically adept player, with an easy experimentalism informing both his melodic choices and his sonic variations, and he frequently cuts right to the nub of the matter in his improvisation, bypassing the tentative explorations that might lead other players to a similar place.
Drummer James Scott probably has the greatest leeway to improvise right through the most arranged passages, and his relaxed but precise stylings both bind the whole thing together and propel it in directions that might not have been apparent had he not chosen to point them out. When he gets some unaccompanied breaks he displays that rare ability to sketch melody through the variety of timbres at his disposal, but like all the best drummers his interventions are so natural that they are most noticeable when he stops.
Rommel Reyes might be reasonably expected to be the predominant voice: this lineup is usually referred to as a ‘piano trio’ rather than a ‘drum trio’ or a ‘bass trio’; he plays it as a three way partnership however, despite holding all the cards harmonically. Perhaps it’s just that harmony seems less important to this music than other elements do, albeit that harmony plays its part: whatever it is, the piano clearly speaks its piece, sometimes fluttering around the musical materials in jazz style, and sometimes sequencing phrases in a more classical manner, but it never overrides the contributions of the other instruments.
This is music that, although it clearly has stylistic sources, and draws its vocabulary from an identifiable lexicon, is singularly unconcerned with genre or with stylistic boundaries. Wherever their collective muse takes them, these players will go. Sometimes seeming almost perversely creative, Heavy Ethics do not cruise; they do not rest on a conceit established early in a piece and roll out an appropriate selection of chops; and they do not unquestioningly recycle a received vocabulary. What they do is to continuously transform the materials at their disposal, in a neverending quest for sounds that have strength, coherence, novelty and, frequently, humour. Their sounds can be challenging, clattery and chaotic, but they are consistently rewarding: they successfully walk the line that separates the avant-garde at large from the avant-garde element that is an inherent part of the jazz methodology. In doing so they create a musical statement that is aesthetically engaging on a variety of levels, creatively uncompromising, sharply intelligent, and extraordinarily accomplished. This album is about four years old, so my only question is what happened to the next one?