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Drummer Tomas Fujiwara knows that it’s all about the phrasing. Having played in so many of the best bands of the last several years, Fujiwara knows it’s about more than simply combining styles or idioms. If you want a tune to pop, to groove, to really set up that hot energy between written and improvised (or blast the distinction altogether), you have to attend to the fall of the note and the space between.
On this terse set (six tracks over 45 minutes), the percussionist/composer does just that in the company of a sterling group of improvisers: guitarist Mary Halvorson, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, tenor saxophonist Brian Settles, and bassist Trevor Dunn. Their music is multi-directional, polyrhythmic, and urgent, and it knocked me out from the opening throb of “Lineage,” whose delicate pointillism and filigree (a rattling press roll, a bronzy splash) is as winning as its swagger. Indeed, Fujiwara is adept at setting up similar contrasts in most of his tunes, but he does so subtly and this is much appreciated. After all, when you can hear the borders too clearly the effect is not so impressive. But when the music is about subtlety and gradation – very much the case here – it’s an impressive achievement. And so on this first tune, the ensemble pinwheels and strolls through several phases – there are fine solos, sure, but also fractures, pauses, and stutters that almost ask “now where were we going?” Ah yes, the gorgeous concluding chorale seems to say, this is where we’re going.
And with that, the band is off on a rich, satisfying course of tunes. There’s a tasty, stuttering 9/8 groove on “Double Lake, Defined,” with Halvorson angularly funky as the horns surf atop the flow. Amidst some Mingusian shouting, a fuzzed out Halvorson drops some squiggly bombs that are marvelously effective in a jittery, polyrhythmic setting like this (at times it almost sounds like she’s out to undermine her own guitarisms). There’s some dazzling interplay between noise and poise on “For Ours” and especially “Cosmopolitan (Rediscovery).” On “For Ours,” the band emerges from a thicket into a brief section for 7/8 (over which Finlayson layers a typically intense, well-structured solo) before sauntering into a free-sounding mid-tempo section where Halvorson’s solo is punctuated by almost self-consciously “jazzy” chording. “Cosmopolitan” is far more gnarly, noisy, and rambunctious. But it, too, is filled with luminous moments of contrast, as when Fujiwara writes in deft horn voicings to suspend over the squall. “Smoke-Breathing Lights” is a wide open, at times ominously spacious series of exchanges, with Settles in especially probing form (he’s an unostentatious but compelling player throughout). But of course, I’d be remiss not to tip the hat to the intensity and focus of Dunn and Fujiwara throughout. They are tight and loose in the right measure, adeptly sustaining the exuberant sectional rhythms of tunes like “Postcards,” all whirling together like Steve Coleman’s recent band turned into a Calder mobile or something.
So yeah, it’s a great record. But I should revise my opening statement a bit. It’s not all about the phrasing. It’s also, quite clearly, all about chemistry too. And both simply flow out of this marvelous band, moment by moment.