Fond Of Tigers: Release the Saviours
Drip Audio/Fontana North

Inhabitants: The Future Moves Underneath
Drip Audio/Fontana North

Tony Wilson 6Tet: Pearls Before Swine
Drip Audio/Fontana North

Wilson/Lee/Bentley: Escondido Dreams
Drip Audio/Fontana North

Four new titles from Jesse Zubot's Drip Audio label find the Vancouver-based label further solidifying its stature as an invalubale resource for innovative, experimental-jazz-based music-making. The releases clearly convey a sense of communal spirit, though to some degree that's attributable to the recurring presence of a core stable of musicians within the various group configurations.

Fond Of Tigers' second album, Release the Saviours, is a mutant potpourri conjured from equal parts schizoid jazz, prog, math-rock, and whatever else the septet (guitarist Stephen Lyons, violinist Jesse Zubot, drummers Skye Brooks and Dan Gaucher, trumpeter JP Carter, pianist Morgan McDonald, and bassist Shanto Bhattacharya) feels like throwing into its visceral mix. Bolstered by its double-drummer attack, Fond Of Tigers has evolved from its 2003 beginnings into a thunderous outfit that seems most in its element when indulging its bombastic side. Be sure to stand clear, for example, when epic incinerators like “Pemberdunn Maple Wolfs” and “A Long Way to Temporary” steamroll forth for a high-octane twelve and fifteen minutes respectively. A penchant for odd-metered time signatures isn't a new thing, of course, but to its credit Fond Of Tigers never makes the proposition seem like a purely academic exercise. Translation: the group rocks, whether or not the tune's in 4/4 or 5/4, though it does sometimes hammer a theme excessively into the ground (e.g., “Dreaming of Betrayal, Awakening Refreshed”)—which doesn't mean there aren't a few quieter moments heard amidst the roar (“Let's Carve Forever Together” offers a becalmed respite, and allows individual voices a few moments in the spotlight). Release the Saviours also reserves some running time for improvs but the formally-composed material impresses more. “Born Again Ready,” the most explorative and, at twelve minutes, longest improv, grows slack at the eight-minute mark, so much so that one misses the semi-controlled chaos the collective generates elsewhere, and the brief outro “Just Married” could have been dispensed with altogether.

Escondido Dreams is a stellar trio recording guitarist Tony Wilson, cellist Peggy Lee, and saxophonist Jon Bentley laid down in April, 2007. The hour-long set is rich in stylistic range and arrangements; while many of the fourteen pieces feature the trio's interplay, there are solo spotlights too (Wilson squeezes as many squawking notes into a minute as possible during “Tony's Solo” while the guitarist and Bentley tiptoe behind Lee during “Frenetic Warrior”), and the musicians move seamlessly between soloist and accompanist roles in material that's both through-composed and improv-based. Fluid interplay makes “Laxing Lizards Resume” a delicious bop-flavoured intro that calls to mind the Zorn-Lewis-Frisell work News for Lulu. Bentley opts for a feathery approach that's so cool one can almost picture Lee Konitz or Paul Desmond playing. Speaking of Frisell, one could easily imagine “Sinister Two” to be penned by him too, with the axesmith accompanied by Zorn and Hank Roberts. Such references are handy as touchstones but shouldn't be interpreted to mean Wilson, Lee, and Bentley aren't solid players in their own right. The album includes entrancing meditations (“Max's Dream,” “Monkey Tree/Just Stories”) and reflective ballads both mellow (“Floating Island”) and bluesy (“Man and Dog”). But lest anyone think Escondido Dreams traffics solely in delicate, tasteful restraint, the trio plays scrabble all over the cubistic “Fornette” (for Ornette, needless to say), and indulges its improv chops in “Mor Feen” (Morphine). In “Lemon,” the recording's most avant-garde excursion, Bentley's opening notes parallel the beginning of Le Sacre Du Printemps. Escondido Dreams doesn't aim to be earth-shattering or revolutionary; it more modestly aspires to present an hour of quality music-making courtesy, and surely succeeds in that regard.

Pearls Before Swine is a radically different animal than Wilson's previous Drip Audio outing, Horses Dream, but that's to be expected: the latter is largely a solo affair whereas the new release is by his “6tet,” a bruising, take-no-prisoners collective that includes trumpeter Carter, alto saxist Masa Anzai, violinist Zubot, double bassist Russell Sholberg, and drummer Brooks. The group supplements a smattering of Wilson originals with covers of “I Am the Walrus,” Monk's “Hornin' In,” Freddie Stone's “Ee - Gypt - Me,” and Tom Cora's “Jim” (intended by Wilson as homages to artists who have influenced him). Like Monk, Wilson's own compositions lean towards the labyrinthine (“Squirk”) and cubistic (“Boo-Dat”), and, in addition to an occasional freak-out episode, there's wailing African skronk (“For Fela Kuti #2”) and ballads both lyrical (“J.P.'s Tune”) and loping (“Innocent Objections”). While the idea of covering “I Am the Walrus” might seem a questionable move, the band's wailing deconstruction pays off and, in the process, renders the original almost unrecognizable. Needless to say, the players are a versatile lot, no one more so than Wilson (hear him burn through “Ee - Gypt - Me,” for example), but special mention must be made of Brooks who solidly anchors and powers each piece while also displaying constant invention. Not everything works: the ADD-treatment of “Hornin' In”—country hoedown, bluesy guitar raunch, free wailing—is irreverent but ultimately less satisfying than would be a straight treatment of Monk's composition, and the laid-back closer “Junkyard Sea” would work perfectly well minus the vocal turn by Kevin House. The seventy-minute set is also too long—Wilson is too generous in sharing solo spotlights and the material drags in spots as a result (“Jesse's Tune,” “A Bit More”)—but, weaknesses aside, Pearls Before Swine remains the kind of fearless music-making that spits in the face of too-polite conservatism and keeps the experimental fire of iconoclasts like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler burning.

Not that Inhabitants' 2005 self-titled debut was overly well-mannered, but the follow-up, The Furniture Moves Underneath, is also a whole other story. The Vancouver-based quartet (trumpeter Carter, guitarist Dave Sikula, bassist Pete Schmitt, drummer Brooks) dramatically extends its reach beyond jazz with a sonic adventurousness that pulls psychedelia, prog, and noise into its orbit. The band prefers to leave the labeling behind and approach its music sans genre preconceptions, and the material's open-ended integration of multiple forms bears this out. The opening piece, “Kurt's Dirt,” blazes out of the gate in a freeform meltdown of psychedelic guitar and flailing drums, leaving little doubt that the band is hunting different prey this time around. But the album's moods and styles are wide-ranging: “The Rancher” layers episodes of freeform noise from Carter and Sikula over a stuttering funk rhythm base, while the calm and tranquil ballad “A Part of You” shows the group can execute delicate jazz interplay as well as anyone. Inhabitants channels the sound and spirit of Bill Frisell's early quartet when Sikula and Brooks indulge in some trademark Frisell twang and Joey Baron freestyle during “Sad Friend” (even the song's theme is Frisell-like) and the atmospheric “Phototropism.” “Drop Descender” isn't quite a dirge though it is ponderous and ruminative in design, and the atmospheric restraint exhibited by the players makes for a strong album finish. The track isn't wholly subdued, though, as its slow-burn eventually culminates in a fiery climax before dropping to a whisper. In contrast to Pearls Before Swine, The Furniture Moves Underneath is a perfectly-timed forty-seven minutes—more than enough for the material to establish itself but not so much that it wears out its welcome. The smaller group configuration also works better, with the quartet format allowing each player room enough to freely maneuver without crowding one another; the interplay also proves more satisfying when each musician's contributions can be attended to.

January 2008