The river of jazz once had the appearance of a mighty current with many tributaries, but now it more resembles a great delta, where it meets a number of other broad waterways at the point of their issue to the ocean. The past of this river is populated with many futures. Free jazz was once its future. Fusion was once its future. Miles Davis and his mercurial, arbitrary inventiveness was once its future. A conservative return to the hard-blowin’ values of bebop was once its future. Since the 1980s it has been a many-headed beast, and it has not been able to progress in the clear way that swing once evolved into the modern, or Bird into Trane; there is always a mainstream, but the mainstream style of jazz has long been whatever style has the most cultural capital at any given moment, or the most revenue. The British-based band Led Bib has a sound that creatively unites several futures, several of the bifurcated outflows of the delta, along with some that originate in other rivers.
Like Sun Ra’s various projects Led Bib are equal parts avant-garde and accessible fun, and this, their ten-year-old fourth album, is a great exemplar of their sound. At times the skronking twin alto frontline explodes in abrasive, polyrhythmic birdsong, and at others it boxes in hefty, rough-hewn cuboids of harmony, while the rhythm section paves a road that is as wide or narrow, as monumental or precarious as it needs to be. There is free jazz in here, but there is also noise rock; there is funk, post-rock, jam-band style improv, delicate lyricism, pleasing pentatonic melodies, harsh dissonance and doom-laden portent. The native materials of jazz, its rich heritage of stylistic vocabulary that until some point in the 1980s or 1990s seemed to circumscribe the tradition’s affective potential, afford a huge range of moods and feelings, but its limits became clear once its practitioners began to listen to the art musics that emerged from contemporary forms of rock and pop. Sensible Shoes incorporates whatever idiolects it fancies, and its broad expressive range is as much in dialogue with Sonic Youth or Sunn O))) as it is with John Zorn or Ornette Coleman. The album is full of riffs and distortions that betray a metalhead sensibility, a happy eclecticism that is more democratically curious than it is snobbishly curatorial. If they hear it, they’ll give it a try. The result is a record so exciting and unpredictable that after a couple of months of repeated listening, it still surprises me every time I hear it.