Lean – Lean – Music Wizards

Lean in and listen: trio music which is loose and lingering.  

Lean – Lean [TrackList follows] – Music Wizards 712411776534, 57:16 [9/16/16] ****:

(Jerome Sabbagh – tenor and soprano saxes; Simon Jermyn – electric bass, effects; Allison Miller – drums, bike, effects)

Lean is a New York City-based trio consisting of saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh, bassist Simon Jermyn and drummer Allison Miller. To appreciate what this forward-driving jazz threesome can do, follow the dictates of the trio’s self-titled debut…and lean in. Listen closely. Pay attention. This hour-long album is rich with compositional creation, improvisational imagination and masterful musicianship. Sabbagh is from France but has called NYC home since the early ‘70s. He’s played with Victor Lewis, Bill Stewart, Billy Drummond, and others; and has led or co-led several groups over the years. Jermyn was raised in Ireland and since moving to New York City has been on stage with John Hollenbeck, Tony Malaby, Dan Tepfer, and many more; issued solo records; and is associated with other NYC-area bands. Miller fronts Boom Tic Boom and is a member of Honey Ear Trio; has performed with songwriters Ani DiFranco and Natalie Merchant; and frequently sits in with the house band for late-night talk-show host Seth Meyers.

Miller fans may recognize the lengthy opener, the thoroughly 21st-century progressive jazz piece, “Spotswood Drive.” A drums-piano-violin-bass version was released on Boom Tic Boom’s 2013 CD, No Morphine No Lilies. Lean maintains the slowly-stirring mood but with a slightly separate characteristic. Sabbagh sustains a tenor sax drone with a ghostly ambience. Meanwhile, Jermyn uses his electric bass to unhurriedly navigate the central melodic theme, and Miller supplies nuanced percussion which is partially rhythmic and moderately atmospheric. About three minutes in, Sabbagh reverts to blowing specific, thematic notes with a polar edge, somewhat akin to Jan Garbarak; and Miller’s percussive alignment changes to a complex course. Some of the rhythmic intricacy and an electronic underflow comes from Miller’s ‘bike and effects’ rig,’ an experimental instrument with a stripped-down bike frame outfitted with various percussive instruments and a single electric bass string, which has a digital output. Miller utilizes the bass string, runs it through her pedals and the result is additional sound elements. The title track (penned by Jermyn) shares a similar sensibility. The softly-shifting tune conveys no explicit feel, but rather has an ambiguous consonance, an ethereal impression highlighted by lyrical sax, Jermyn’s complementary bass and Miller’s tinged percussion. Another Miller work also gets the Lean treatment. “Olney” (named for Miller’s Maryland hometown) was initially presented by Miller’s Honey Ear Trio on the 2011 album, Steampunk Serenade. Miller states, “I’ve always wanted this…played with electric bass, and when this trio formed, I thought, ‘Well, here we go.’ We approached it in a fresh way, with some duo moments and other things. It ended up being very different than the original recording.” The arrangement is prominent. Electronics effects are juxtaposed against Coltrane-esque sax squeals; and grungy electric bass contrasts with subtle percussive brushes and sticks.

When Lean wants to swing, the trio can. Not in a traditional way, but in utterly modern fashion. One example is on Sabbagh’s “Electric Sun,” which first appeared on Sabbagh’s 2014 quartet outing, The Turn. At that time the tune was notably contemplative and propelled by sax/guitar interaction. This 2016 translation is more immediate and has a soulful beat which features Jermyn’s ardent, harmonically intense expertise, wherein he entwines both bass and guitar responsiveness, a tactic which evokes Jaco Pastorius’s spirit. Jermyn’s “Otis”—which nods to soul music great Otis Redding—takes some time to escalate, but when it does, the essence of energy is replete. The arrangement is both circuitous and sharply engaging. There is an unsteady texture, but also a steadfast underpinning, so that hearing this creates a balanced and unbalanced reaction. Alongside the reconfigured material and newly-written ones, there are two completely free improvisations, the unconsciously nightmare-like “Bunker” (with a heavy dose of distorted bass) and the apparition-laden “Ghost.”

Jermyn’s CD-closing, seven-minute cut, “Fast Fish,” is inspired by a passage in Herman Melville’s novel, Moby Dick, which explains how whalers can lay claim to a dead whale, by any means: from thick rope to a thin strand of thread. Thus, during “Fast Fish,” the threesome manipulates the idea of music being stable and tenuous. Miller and Jermyn provide a slippery and polyrhythmic footing which is equally funky and knotty, while Sabbagh shines on tenor sax. But another surprise abounds. About 30 seconds after “Fast Fish” is wrapped up, a bonu hidden track, the aforementioned “Ghost,” begins. It is haunting, disconsolate, includes loops and electronic effects, and is wholly improvised, stimulated by playing “in the moment.”

TrackList: Spotswood Drive; Electric Sun; Lean; Olney; Bunker; Otis; Comptine; Fast Fish.

—Doug Simpson

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