Rob Clearfield – Islands – ears&eyes

Chicago trio which puts freedom to the forefront.

Rob Clearfield – Islands [TrackList follows] – ears&eyes ee16-047, 57:36 [6/3/16] ****:

(Rob Clearfield – piano, electric piano, organ, guitar, co-producer; Curt Bley – acoustic and electric bass; Quin Kirchner – drums)

There’s a sense of self-determination on Chicago pianist Rob Clearfield’s first trio outing, the hour-long Islands. Clearfield issued two previous albums (a quintet record and a solo piano undertaking), and he wanted to approach this release with a purpose. “There’s a freedom inherent in the trio, where I’m the main melodic player,” he states. “When we were recording, I knew that this project was really going to be about my playing; I was never going to be in the background or blending into the ensemble.” He went further and pushed himself and his rhythm section (electric and acoustic bassist Curt Bley and drummer Quin Kirchner) into a realm of freedom within limitation. This musical aesthetic creates tension via the essential restrictions of three musicians and also by the dynamism of improvisation performed within each of the nine compositions (seven by Clearfield and two credited to the trio).

Clearfield widened the trio configuration in the recording process. He overdubbed organ and guitar on several tracks, breaking the rules of a typical trio format. And although each tune was written in advance before heading into the studio, the threesome explored and developed outside the confines of the composed music. The result is an abundant stratum of music which is steeped in modern jazz but sometimes drifts into contemporary classical music aspects; other times there are shades of gospel, ‘90s alternative rock or ‘70s progressive rock.

Two of Clearfield’s influences are guitarist/pianist Ralph Towner and saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The spirit of both pervades the 6:29 “Ralph Towner.” Towner was known to overdub piano over his guitar, and Clearfield follows suit on this shadowy, night-filled piece which has a dream-like quality. The cut commences with a deliberate, unassuming and somewhat opaque progression. The mood does not vary much until the halfway mark, when the music becomes denser; the rhythmic support changes into an eddying mix of plucked bass notes, cymbals and brushes. The second half of “Ralph Towner” echoes the first section, where nuance is an important attribute, much like Shorter’s many tunes.

The opening piece, the nearly-nine minute “With and Without,” is also the lengthiest. Clearfield initially supplies a decorative melodic line, which gradually melts into a quixotic midsection of introspection, and then the trio slips into a percussive wooziness which has a skittish and edgy slant. Think of Brad Mehldau’s trio work as an apt comparison, especially since both Clearfield and Mehldau don’t discriminate when it comes to amalgamating facets of rock and jazz. That aforementioned looseness permeates the crisply harmonic “Narcissa” (one of the tunes penned by the trio as a whole), which is animated and driving. Clearfield provides clipped piano lines while Bley and Kirchner contribute an arcing rhythmic undercurrent. “Narcissa” includes more dissonance—and conversely more buoyancy—than the other compositions. On the opposite end of the scale is the stately “Child, Awake,” a balladic ode to youth and parental dedication which showcases Clearfield’s romantic side. His acoustic piano is abetted by feathery organ which barely glides beneath the arrangement. Clearfield plays acoustic piano and electric organ at the same time again on the title track, which is impelled by Kirchner’s resolute 4/4 tempo.

The eclectic, 7:26 “Pierce Is Kind of a Weird Name for a Street” has some intimations of Radiohead, a band Clearfield acknowledges he is a big fan of. Clearfield switches to electric piano and ringing electric guitar reminiscent of Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. Bley maintains the rock-based stance with electric bass, while Kirchner utilizes an unconventional cadence parked somewhere between fusion jazz and indie rock. This is the sort of jazz which purists sometimes disdain but listeners who like the Bad Plus, Tortoise and the Chicago Underground Duo will appreciate this. “Pierce Is Kind of a Weird Name for a Street” segues into the most avant-garde number, the album-closing “Where the Tape’s At/Islands (reprise).” Clearfield—back on acoustic piano—veers headlong into free jazz solo territory. There’s a very low arco bass which can hardly be heard during the first minute, and then Kirchner begins adding liquid-like percussion. The reprise comprises a brief playback of the title track alongside a bit of studio chatter: it’s like a stolen moment surreptitiously taped on a smartphone.

[Amazon has only the compressed MP3 at this time…Ed.]

TrackList: With and Without; Ralph Towner; Narcissa; Child, Awake; The Forest; The Antidote; Islands; Pierce Is Kind of a Weird Name for a Street; Where the Tape’s At/Islands (reprise).

—Doug Simpson

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