Slowfoot Records SLOLP024, 2014, DD, CD & LP album, 38m 50s
£7+ DD & CD £12+ LP
This band make a sound with a great big gaping hole right through the middle of it. Conceptually, jazz has been (among other things) about the relationship between single lines and harmony, for a considerable number of decades – perhaps this became an overriding concern with the advent of be-bop, when harmonic complexity increased concurrently with a reduction in the resources commonly available for orchestrating the music. Don’t ask me, I’m not a jazz historian, and I’m far too lazy to do the research, but I reckon it’s plausible. Either way, there’s been an ongoing negotiation of said relationship, and a number of competing tendencies: hard blowing post-boppers like to wear their technical knowledge like sergeant’s stripes and solve intricate harmonic rhythms as though they were crossword puzzles; free improvisers claim to eschew harmony altogether, although their music may (or may not) be full of counterpoint and densely chromatic synchronies of pitches; modal jazz (and its bastard child the jam band movement) pins harmonic moments down like lepidopterological specimens so it can have a long, hard look at them. Others simply tear the explicit statement of harmony right out of the centre of the music and let rip, like Joe Henderson on 1986’s blistering The State of the Tenor; there the blowing has great freedom, but it is anything but ‘free’, and very specific harmonic movements are often expressed with great clarity, although the two instruments playing pitches can never state any voicing fuller than a dyad. Celebrate doesn’t sound like The State of the Tenor, but it shares its idiosyncratic resources of bass, drums and lead (though bass duties are handled here by Oren Marshall’s agile and expressive tuba, while Finn Peters expands the melodic palette to plural saxes and flute), and it has in common with it an ambiguous, somewhat unknowable sense of harmony. There are moments when centres of key or modality shift, in a way that suggests some chord symbols may be written on a chart somewhere, and there are moments when the music gives the impression of atonality. Although in certain places, such as ‘Celebrate’, at the album’s conclusion, or in ‘Acorn’ at its outset, we do hear an unambiguously stated chord sequence, much of the time, without a piano or other chordal instrument to hold the listener’s metaphorical hand, we the audience must decide for ourselves whether to hear abstraction, or to attempt to resolve the sometimes frenetic jousting of two pitched voices into a sequence of tonal-chromatic chord structures. Or alternatively, to simply hear the sounds, and follow where they lead us, which I think is really the point of The Grip’s usually aharmonic, but only occasionally atonal approach.
Most of the pieces on the album contain head statements and periods of improvisation, which always sound mutual, but also frequently cast the instruments in traditional roles of blowing and comping; for example, early in ‘The 199 Blues’, Peters extemporises fluidly and melodically while Marshall and the assured Tom Skinner on drums supply a deep, simple groove at a slow walking pace. However, this is by no means the only approach showcased in the piece, and at moments of increasing tension or heightened dynamics this clear division of labour breaks down, as though an intensity of affect compels Marshall and Skinner to bring their own meanings to the centre of the discourse, and join their voices to Peters’, clamouring to be heard on the same terms, before the groove re-emerges with apparent spontaneity from the collective. The point, for me, is that Marshall and Skinner are not here to give Peters something to play over, to frame and enhance his head melodies and solos, but to contribute in different, specific, but equally participatory ways to a shared practice whose meanings are negotiated in performance, at the boundary between the composed and the improvised.
Established approaches to texture are not discarded or discounted, but exploited joyfully, Peters’ flute trilling like a songbird over the the insistent ground-bass and linear percussion textures of his compadres in ‘Saladin’, but they are possibilities for orchestration, rather than the non-negotiable paradigm thereof. The extended free blowing in ‘The Grip’ has the three voices exploding centrifugally, yet sounding emphatically as an ensemble, like a rampant phrase ending in an Ah Um era Mingus performance. And that’s not a bad touchstone for The Grip’s sound, in its unity of earthy soul and unrestrained imaginative flight. From the moments of funky invitation in ‘Compost’ to the extended drones of ‘Kailash’, a range which implicates many creative practices, within jazz and without it, the band’s sparse but never severe texture points decisively at those two poles, not offering the listener the lush, comfortable middle-ground afforded by more extensively voiced harmonies or a broader spectral range. It’s a full sound, but it has space in it, literally, and metaphorically for both the erotic and the imaginative faculties to play.
This is an album whose practices invite an analytical and reflective critical response, but listening to Celebrate is best done with other faculties brought to the fore. Its fat grooves and bluesy expressivity are an obvious appeal to the listening body, but its departures from idiomatically recognisable musical language are not intellectual exercises intended to elicit a response of gnostic chin stroking from the cognoscenti; this is visceral music in all of its parts, and it is an experience to be felt, not a text to be read. There is certainly thought in its conception, and it offers its considerable rewards to its audience as whole people, physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual beings; but those meanings are not to be accessed by decoding it like the nested references of a Tarantino movie. When the rhythms complexify to the point of surface chaos, as they do in ‘Compost’, the willing listener, who has boarded The Grip’s train at a station of familiar stylistic character, is carried into a challenging, somewhat disorientating, but no less physical or soulful place; but it is a place whose affective qualities are too particular to be contained in a practice founded solely on common generic conventions. That The Grip keep returning to such recognisable ground evinces an understanding of the difficulty listeners sometimes face in a landscape stripped of all familiar landmarks, and more importantly allows them collectively to produce meanings that would be undermined by a continual renegotiation of their basic terms of reference. In other words, as physical and emotionally committed as the free improvisation on this record is, without the strong elements of groove to ground it, it would probably feel a good deal more abstract. Celebrate challenges, nourishes, excites and entertains without the slightest compromise in terms of creative rigour; it is historically situated yet inventive, boundary-crossing yet idiomatically complete, and a sonically challenging yet exceptionally lovely sound.