Album of the week - East Axis, No Subject, Brother Mister ****1/2

How tender No Subject out today begins. But East Axis are hardly a cry-in-your-beer singalong lounge band. And yet the opener's instrumentalism and sheer personality hits you in your soul pretty straight away. Matthew Shipp skips the lead line of …

Published: 27 Jan 2023. Updated: 13 months.

How tender No Subject out today begins. But East Axis are hardly a cry-in-your-beer singalong lounge band. And yet the opener's instrumentalism and sheer personality hits you in your soul pretty straight away. Matthew Shipp skips the lead line of 'I Like It Very Much' along in sprightly fashion as the remarkable Scott Robinson during the course of the album playing not only tenor sax but also alto clarinet, tarogato, trumpet and slide cornet continues his dialogue this time gruffer. Drummer Gerald Cleaver is audacious enough to swing the tune and yet that works.

When Robinson switches to cornet on the very brief plea 'Somebody Just Go In, Please' the whole thing changes. But it's over before it begins which is a pity. 'I Take That Back Later' is also very concise. But more often than not there is ample opportunity for the quartet to fully express themselves beyond pithy statement.

If anyone East Axis is double bassist Kevin Ray's band and his Charlie Haden-esque solo at the beginning of 'Sometime Tomorrow' is an album highlight. Shipp is magnificent throughout and a welcome change from too many solo albums he has been heard on in recent years some of which work beautifully some more ho-hum.

east axis

East Axis l-r: Gerald Cleaver, Scott Robinson, Matthew Shipp, Kevin Ray

A departure for Christian McBride's Brother Mister label dealing with a hard core improvising unit who take no prisoners and bravo for that decision given how excellent the album is. I'm thinking of the words of Emily Dickinson in a famous poem speaking of hope ''Yet - never - in Extremity, It asked a crumb - of me.''

To wrap the final things to listen out for are Robinson's tour de force of scrabbling intensity on 'Decisions Have Already Been Made' and again that sense of tenderness on the formidable 'Metal Sounds'. The title track, the longest piece, 'No Subject' with its bee-like flight and up, up and away quality to it is a complete surprise. East Axis set the bar teeteringly high for avant gardists everywhere on this generously fertile evidence. The words of Emily Dickinson again spring to mind:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all

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Track of the week: Dave Liebman - The Beginning, Cellar Live ****

There is rarely anything as thrilling - when it works and it does here - as a long, free (idiomatically) group improvisation. Note this isn't continuous, autonomous free playing that involves players blasting all the time, skronking, a style that …

Published: 26 Jan 2023. Updated: 13 months.

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There is rarely anything as thrilling - when it works and it does here - as a long, free (idiomatically) group improvisation. Note this isn't continuous, autonomous free playing that involves players blasting all the time, skronking, a style that some unfairly call a cacophany. There is always a place and a meaning when that happens make no mistake but that's not what this is. The essence of this briefest of the three improvisations on the album yes composed is another word to describe this freedom of a style that stretches all the way back to late period Coltrane certainly when saxophone is involved. The main thing is that there has to be sincerity and supreme empathetic musicianship for the whole outcome to be convincing. Nobody can be ''winging it'' or worse pretending to be free. Dave Liebman's heyday was the 1970s you might say in another idiom - that isn't true at all because he's been playing brilliantly for decades since in a wide variety of contexts - when Lieb was on some classic Miles Davis jazz-rock albums and created his own dreamy Andalucian sense of pastoral bliss on his classic 1974 release Lookout Farm. Here at Smalls in Greenwich Village a year ago with the free trumpeter Peter Evans who was excellent when Other People Do The Killing were in their prime and is a leader of note himself there is no fear, another crucial factor, and no timidity and no just-playing-for-the-sake-of-it sense and nary a show-off posing shortcutting on display either. A looseness and a discovery of a space beyond the bar line is what they achieve, beyond the common place of everyday rhythmic nicety and a journey into their own sense of savoury tonality and back. When pianist Leo Genovese takes his solo it's a different antique sense emerging - perhaps you might start thinking of some Elmo Hope in the language he adopts. Perhaps not. Certainly the individual contributions matter just as much as the collective power and there is a lot of distilled pan stylistic vocabulary in operation during this piece. The freeness comes in the state of mind and in the shape of this tune as it travels from a teetering precipice to a relative safe harbour where John Hébert's springy bass provides a lot of exact measurement amid the sheer thrust that he develops. Later his solo is very quiet (even too quiet but there's time for reflection when that happens) in the mix. Tyshawn Sorey can compel thoughts of when Coltrane's late-period inspiration Rashied Ali chose to play hard bop lines which he did when not playing free. 'The Beginning' is from Live at Smalls out next week on the Cellar Live label. It is a deeply satisfying near-15 minute long form expression to frame your day faraway from the usual kind of meretricious preening you hear on most daytime radio and in over complacent jazz even. Everyone gets famous for 15 minutes - fame for playing free counts for more in this rarified galaxy far, far away.

Dave Liebman, photo: a detail from the Cellar Live label artwork