Sparkling quartet jazz with brainy energy and inspired open-ended charts.

Peripheral Vision: More Songs About Error and Shame – Step3 – 007, 52:40 (2/27/18) ****:

(Michael Herring; bass/ Don Scott; guitar/ Nick Fraser; drums/ Trevor Hogg; tenor saxophone)

It was the great chess grandmaster and wag, Savielly Tartakower, who remarked with regard to  initial setup of the chessboard “all the mistakes are there, waiting to be made.” Much the same could be said at the beginning of the day (or a life). Nature herself is profligate in failed experiments, which Natural Selection ruthlessly edits out.  As for the individual opossum or human, a mistake (if it doesn’t kill one) provides just as much opportunity for learning as for shame.  The record under review is called More Songs about Error and Shame. The charming cover depicts a graphic schema of humans in various poses of regret and embarrassment. The inner sleeve adds scenarios ranging from the Titanic to a broken window, an overfilled coffee cup, the space station flaming out, missing the trash can with a crumpled wad of paper, or an embarrassing email exchange.

It is only February, but I predict this will be my choice for album cover of the year. It would be hard for any music to live up to the inspired invention and whimsicality of the cover art-work.

Things begin boldy with The Blunder, which features razor sharp unisons and tight ensemble work over a tricky meter. Guitarist Don Scott plays against a roiling rhythm section with confidence. Nothing could be further from bumbling or farcical indulgence. The style of playing here recalls a first-rate guitar stylist, Brad Shepik, in both tone and melodic notions. This influence, or convergence, returns elsewhere and is the first of several pleasant surprises. Trevor Hogg takes a longish solo which ponders a handful of odd intervals, expressive of cautious choice-making rather than blundering. It is a promising start to what will be a great record.

The ensuing Syntax Error is more modestly conceived and finds its way slowly towards its musical premise. The group does, however, nicely achieve a beautifully tailored group sound, with the bass high in the mix, holding things together from start to finish. “And the metaphysical concept of shame” follows, its enigmatic title suggesting the key distinction between human and animal psychology. By now, however, we guess that the ironic titles for each track were pulled out of a hat. The head is a well-crafted line, with sharp unisons and exacting counterpoint from the bass. A bridge gives way to thoughtful solos, first by the guitar, then the sax, which plays sweet and then sour, high and then low, never succumbing to cliche or grandstanding.  A tricky and deliberately ragged coda may be an attempt at a portrayal of shame or head-banging mea culpa, or it may just aim at thwarting musical or other resolution.

Portrait of a Man in a Late Nineteenth-Century Frame is notey and free-form. Not for the first or last time, the bassist steps forward to impose what order there is. The guitar is especially attentive to the bassist’s “instructions.” Drummer Nick Fraser plays nimble figures and paradiddles his way to the crisp ending. Chubby Cello is wonky and playful, with the by-now-expected twists and turns and plenty of rattling and squeaks and electronic effects to puzzle over. Mycelium Running, the title borrowed from a first rate book on fungus, is more conventional in its structure. Sax and guitar interplay precede a lovely guitar solo that reminds me more of the lyricism of Steve Kahn than the puckish style of Shepik. The drumming just gets better and better on this record, and this tune is a high point for the quick-wristed Fraser. The thickly-textured guitar for once seems extraneous. The final tune, Click Bait,  adds nothing new, but keeps up the high level of rapport and cohesiveness. Some grand chiming chords on the guitar lead to a  Balkan inflected dust-up in which the clear winner, for the last time, is the percussion section.

This group Peripheral Vision has nothing to be ashamed of on this sparkling debut record which is a delight from start to finish. If it falls short of the outstanding artistic concept, it is only by a small margin. I eagerly await more from these outstanding musicians.

—Fritz Balwit