Free jazz has expanded in so many directions over just the last generation that one can find something to scratch nearly any stylistic itch. In ways, this is wonderful. In others, listeners can get lost in the morass of vanguard sound art and hyper-minimalism or -maximalism and, for extended periods, lose sight of the roots of the experiments. In the process, one can lose a connection with those musicians which have built on that same improvisational foundation more linearly, in not less progressively. When I catch myself in this process, I most often find my way back home to New York's downtown scene.
The Steve Swell Quintet Soul Travelers are some of the luminaries of a generation of musicians who made their name and continue to explore the depths of soulful fire music: William Parker, Jemeel Moondoc, Dave Burrell, Gerald Cleaver, Leena Conquest (on "Astonishments" and "Being Here"), and, of course, Steve Swell. Astonishments is their second release (with the addition of Conquest) and, if you are familiar with the line-up, you likely know what to expect. Expertly practiced, relentlessly genuine, aggressively melodic free jazz.
Given the personnel and spirit, however, this should not be surprising. It might also be unsurprising that despite the Swell's name gracing the cover, his lyrics, and his compositions, this sounds more Soul Travelers as a collective than Swell as leader. Moondoc and Swell frequently tangle their horns vying for the front stage only, at times, to be elbowed back by Conquest and her muscularly graceful delivery. (As usual, she shines, here.) Cleaver and Parker, meanwhile, hold an infectiously chaotic rhythm with astounding precision and lyricism. For his part, Burrell is concerted and masterful. At times as he reinforces a melody or grounds one in abstraction here or interjects a few sparse chords into a group improvisation tending toward entropy there, it feels like he is the last sinew holding this exuberant beast together. Songs swing between raw ebullience on the one hand and dreamy, sweltering grooves on the other. They tend to be busy, but not compulsively so. There are harmonies, but never without clunk and coarseness. And always, this album delivers.
Astonishments, in other words, is where it's at. The music, honestly, could have been written twenty years ago, as could the socially incisive and ultimately hopeful lyrics. (That is, apart from the elegiac section of "Astonishments", wherein Conquest runs through a list of members of the NY scene lost over the last decade.) Indeed, "Being Here" was first performed back in 2006. In other hands, this rootedness and temporal fungibility might seem like a throwback in less able hands. Here, it is a strength. It speaks to the timelessness of the message and of the music.
Is this any of the Soul Travelers' most shocking or novel album? Clearly not. It is, however, a worthy addition to their catalogs, and one that offered the necessary reminder to this listener that all abstract music does not need to be just doom, gloom, glitchy cacophony, and extended techniques. It can have warmth, heart, and rhythm and still convey that uncompromising potency that characterizes the best of the radical fringes.
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