The human condition becomes musically portrayed on pianist Bobby Avey’s latest.
Bobby Avey – Inhuman Wilderness [TrackList follows] – Innervoice Jazz IVJ 102, 45:43 [6/24/16] ****:
(Bobby Avey – piano, producer; John O’Gallagher – alto saxophone (tracks 2-3, 6, 8); Thomson Kneeland – bass; Jordan Perlson – drums)
It may not be readily apparent when listening to pianist Bobby Avey’s fifth album, Inhuman Wilderness, but Avey has produced a record replete with concept, specifically the tragedy of man’s inhumanity to fellow men and also to the world/nature around them. Avey’s eight originals (which range from over nine minutes long to under two minutes) cover topics such as American military drone operations in the Middle East, to the unwritten stories of people who form the fabric of historical events; from the disproportionate costs of gentrification and escalating rents, to the need for societal changes. Since this 45-minute project has no vocals—this is quartet jazz music, not a spoken word or lyric-driven achievement—Avey and his band convey and communicate via musical cues, themes and stimuli.
Avey’s eloquence, compassion and occasional indignation can be heard from start to finish, and are brought into focus by his new quartet: bassist Thomson Kneeland and drummer Jordan Perlson (both have performed in a trio format with Avey for a decade); and the latest member, alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher, whom Avey met in 2014 (O’Gallagher contributes to four tracks). Avey’s name might not be recognized by all jazz fans, but he’s garnered acclaim: he won the 2011 Thelonious Monk Competition for Composition; has worked with saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and Sam Sadigursky; and is currently in Dave Liebman’s group, Expansions.
Avey’s compositions are modern. This is 21st century jazz, through and through. Avey’s harmonic and artistic array includes rhythmic influences from Balkan folk music, Haitian Vodou drumming, funk music, contemporary classical music and other jazz musicians. Skittish beats populate the opener, “Countless Voices of Unknown People,” which is based on historian/social activist Howard Zinn’s ideas on how history is made of movements shaped or formed by the actions of many who go unrecorded and remain unidentified. Here, as on the other tunes, Avey’s piano acts as both rhythmic tool and solo instrument: he’s upfront but as much a part of the percussive development as Kneeland and Perlson. Two shorter numbers sit in the middle of the program. The 2:19 “Structural Adjustment” has an interesting contrast between Kneeland’s higher-register and often pulsing bass, Avey’s dense and compact keyboard chords, and Perlson’s dynamic drumming, and Perlson’s percussive touches. The frenetic 1:42 “Land Theft” rushes along with an eruption of low notes on piano and the standup bass, and accelerated drumming. Avey goes it alone on the deliberately revealing “Rent the Sky,” a solo piano realization which articulates the results of drones used by American military forces in places like Somalia, Afghanistan and Yemen. During “Rent the Sky,” Avey’s keyboard notes gradually become more galvanized, discordant, forceful and punitive.
The four cuts which feature O’Gallagher are all highlights. During the churning, eight-minute “Fall Not a Tear,” he creates solos which carve through the arrangement, and twist through the musical passages. “Fall Not a Tear” is explorative, and O’Gallagher takes advantage of the space to supply his fine horn skills. The title track is the opposite of “Fall Not a Tear.” This is minimal, lean music, connected by Avey’s single piano notes, Kneeland’s blue-tinted arco bass, O’Gallagher’s ghostly and dramatic sax and Perlson’s noir-ish drum patterns. Next time David Lynch does a Mulholland Drive-esque thriller, he should contact Avey for some soundtrack assistance.
The longest composition, the 9:57 “I Should Have Known No Less,” nods to a line found in Shakespeare’s play, “Antony and Cleopatra.” There is plenty of room for interaction, musical inspiration and improvisation. The piece begins benignly, with a low, edgy harmonic introduction; then O’Gallagher soars on sax; Kneeland offers an intrepid bass solo; the quartet rumbles outwardly and by the six minute mark, knotty percussion and rhythmic elements commence which are particularized by Avey as he produces packets of piano harmonies. As the extended number concludes the quartet circles back to the beginning with halcyon awareness. The quartet closes with “Composure Must Be Rare,” which Avey states was “the most difficult song I’ve ever written. I continually shaped it with my trio over the last six years until we were finally ready to document it.” It has an unstable undercurrent, wavering and at the same time sturdy, and over 9:38 the piece is equivalently absorbing and disconcerting. There’s no telling where the piece could go, but when it gets there, it feels like it could not have gone anywhere but where it arrives. This is O’Gallagher’s best performance on the album. He ascends and then plumes downward, and heightens the emotional and psychological instances. Avey, meanwhile, frequently layers a lower-register pathway which coalesces with the bass and drums, a kindled rhythmic approach which systematically builds and builds. The tune’s tension rises and, at the end, is suddenly released.
TrackList: Countless Voices of Unknown People; Fall Not a Tear; Inhuman Wilderness; Structural Adjustment; Land Theft; I Should Have Known No Less; Rent the Sky; Composure Must Be Rare.