On his debut album, ‘Rotational Templates,’ released by New Focus Recordings, guitarist Travis Reuter explicitly sets out to use techniques from modern classical music in his compositions for jazz quintet. The accompanying blurb states that he ‘draws heavily on influences from the music of composers Elliott Carter, Brian Ferneyhough, and Jason Eckardt.’ So: a brave and hazardous endeavour: this is an approach that has been tried many times, grafting classical to jazz and the history of the music, from Paul Whiteman onwards, contains, perhaps, many more failures than successes. Attempts to utilise formal devices and instrumentations from the straight music world all too often resulted in an uncool stiffness that impeded the rhythmic/melodic flows of the jazz to produce an often bloodless hybrid that was very much less than the sum of its parts. Whisper the name: ‘Thirdstream.’ So how does Reuter’s album fare, against this backdrop? Very well, actually. There is a skittery, jump-cutting intensity to the music that partakes of contemporary classical but the overall rhythmic field is expansive enough to enfold and make it flow. A small group helps, giving plenty of space and – perhaps younger musicians are not fazed by moving between genres these days? Reuter – classically trained but with an evidently superb jazz guitar technique would seem to prove that point. This is thoughtful, intelligent music, not afraid to foreground its techniques and influences, yet with enough grit and groove to lift it way beyond what could have been a stodgy mess. The distortions of electric guitar and Fender Rhodes give a rocky, funky edge, coupled with a sparing use of added electronics and a mix that moves instruments and sounds around more than would be usually found on a straightahead jazz record. If Thirdstream as was is Scylla, then Charybdis in this context would surely be: fusion/prog rock. Fusion being an attempt to make jazz more rocky and prog – well, trying to make rock more respectable and ‘complicated.’ That yearning for ‘respectability’ is what poisoned the musical oceans in times gone by. Much of the success of this album resides in the avoidance of past mistakes – the keyboard/guitar interactions hark back to Miles Davis at his electric best rather than the blandness that followed his pioneering after ‘Bitches Brew.’. Reuter and his crew negotiate safe passage through this particular Strait of Messina…
First track: ‘Vacancy at 29,’ bass leading in to be joined by flurries from Jeremy Viner’s tenor saxophone and electronic colourations back in the mix. The sax builds as slow processional Fender Rhodes chording (Bobby Avey) combines with noise granularities. Jittery music, held together by the sturdy bass of Chris Tordini as the sax stretches out into more declamatory mode. Guitar takes over to solo in a tumble of notes, building up a head of steam, veering into a distorted rocky sound world as the keyboard chases. Then: a sudden end. And all the tracks finish in the same abrupt way, as if emphasising that there will be be no rambling, that concision is all at this session. The endings, then, emblematic of the whole, where composed material is balanced by improvisation under tight rein.
‘Residency at 20 (Part One) starts with slow chording guitar in almost traditional jazz timbre then sax joins to spell out the melody, accents doubled and hammered into place by Jason Nazari’s drums – which are slightly back in the mix, perhaps they would have benefited from a more up front posture? But one assumes that the placement is deliberate. Much thought has gone into the production, after all – as witnessed by the next section when the guitar goes into ghostly quasi-dubstep mode drifting out of the immediate sound space into an echoing background before returning up front to spin out some fast lines alternated with crunching chords. Another ensemble passage then more distorted guitar as the drums slowly edge forward. Again, a sudden stop.
‘Singular Arrays.’ A hint of sprightly Dolphyesque angularity in the melody. Guitar briefly solos before joining the sax for unison statements. Keyboard and bass repeat a phrase as the drums come through. Keyboard solos, coming off a wobbling figure, cranked up distortion, intersected by sax reiterating that phrase again. Keyboard in freer style over sparse bass and fidgeting drums that drive it along briefly. Guitar next up, some longer linear development that really start to go just before the again abrupt end.
One uses comparisons again – ‘Flux Derivatives’ opens on unison guitar and sax that distantly evokes Pat Metheny and Ornette’s collaboration for these ears. Again, an interesting use of space – sax, guitar and spare, clipped drums, the keyboard does not arrive straight away then floats wafty chords, bass coming in last. The next section: warm sax laced with cymbals and various rhythmic shifts, Viner slowly burning to a climax propelled by cutting drums – followed by elegaic Fender Rhodes that suddenly jumps a couple of emotional notches. Guitar bubbles in, whiplash lines balanced by splayed chords. Reuter stepping out here. Viner returns very briefly, riding a note – then – you guessed it, sudden stop.
The last track: ‘Residency at 20 (Part Two).’ Opened by tenor over another stop/start bass riff, the top line proceeds to flow over busy drums, adding keyboards along the way – then a brief ensemble section as the bass riff continues. Third section: free-floating keyboards and some biting guitar as the drums bustle and push, keyboard taking it up alone. Sax and guitar back in unison, all dropping for the bass to essay a few solo bars then all together in a swirling finale. Then: that sudden stop.
‘Jazz’ just having gone through the gates of the twenty first century and approaching, perhaps, its centennial has covered so much ground during those preceding years. To riff off the Good Book: there are many mansions in the house, but no overall ‘Father’ in residence/ownership to guide/dominate in this age of suspicion/hostility towards metanarratives. The dynamic between improvisation and composition provokes many different solutions, as it always has, but the possibilities have multiplied drastically. But some things carry through. The key to all jazz, arguably, is rhythm, primarily the drums and their role in giving shape and space – and improvisational opportunity. (Jimmy Giuffre’s early free jazz attempts got round this by dropping the drummer, which proves the point, perhaps). The avant garde evolved in the sixties once drummers worked out various strategies to expand their rhythms, offering more dimensions and expanded pulses that opened new doors. With such a wider field of rhythm available, perhaps it is easier now to produce music such as this, which has intellect and energy in balanced doses. Also: much of contemporary art music is not so far away from areas that have developed in the free improvisational worlds – often in practice their sound worlds mesh. Reuter’s stated influences here – Fernyhough and Carter, Erckhardt – have all in their own ways rejected or moved on from the earlier ideology of strict twelve tone serialism which was usually a straitjacket when applied to jazz – and beyond, arguably. Their rhythmic/harmonic complexity is maybe not such a distance to travel now (think Cecil Taylor) – Fernyhough’s extensive use of the tuplet would be a bridge maybe to the overlaid rhythms and syncopations that jazz has always bounced off. Well, OK, maybe I am stretching here? But: what is exciting on this album is that those areas of previous contention/misalignment, the formal compositional devices – tone rows, counterpoint, intricately notated shifting rhythms etc – are encompassed by this wider sense of expanded rhythm so that the charts are not stodgy, nor the improvisations impeded – everything sounds right and in place. And sounds fresh. ‘Rotational Templates’ is that rarity, a novel conception that works. The discipline of five relatively short tracks also gives a feeling that less is more. Nothing meanders, all pulled up suddenly in what seems a trademark ending which seems to say: that’s it, enough has been said at this point. Reuter obviously has much confidence in his overall vision and did not feel it necessary to over-egg the pudding on his first outing. The no-doubt hand-picked ensemble helps – the ideas of individuals are there but they are bound into the greater whole of the band. My one beef? I would have liked a little more stretching out, perhaps, but that’s a minor quibble. I suspect that live shows would have more room for soloing expansion – and this is a band I would love to see… A very surefooted debut from Reuter then. We await the next chapter…