Ken Thomson and Slow/Fast: Settle
NCM East Records

Ken Thomson was the recipient of deserved acclaim for his late 2013 release Thaw, which features two contemporary classical pieces performed by the Jack String Quartet and on one of the tracks the Brooklyn-based composer on bass clarinet. While that Cantaloupe Music debut primarily accentuates Thomson's gifts as a composer, Settle, his second album with Slow/Fast, equally showcases his talents as musician and composer.

A member of the punk/jazz band Gutbucket, twelve-piece Asphalt Orchestra, chamber orchestra Signal, and Bang On A Can All-Stars, Thomson plays alto sax and bass clarinet on the fifty-one-minute Settle and challenges his Slow/Fast band-mates—guitarist Nir Felder, trumpeter Russ Johnson, acoustic bassist Adam Armstrong, and drummer Fred Kennedy—with a number of demanding charts. A typical piece is a heady brew that blends complex composed material and improvisation, with lead players often pairing up for knotty, rapid-fire passages executed with incredible precision. Though on playing grounds, Settle is not for the faint of heart, the musicians came to the recording session well-prepared, having been together since 2010 when the band's debut album, It Would Be Easier If, was released. Not surprisingly, all of the musicians bring to the group long lists of credits as sidemen and leaders in their own right.

Though four of the five compositions are in the ten-minute range (the serene two-minute “Coda” the exception), they're not structured as standard head-solo-head exercises. Instead, Thomson shapes the material in unpredictable ways: ensemble and solo episodes fluidly alternate as part of a piece's overall conception, and at times the full band plays while at other times certain players drop out.

Thomson introduces the title track with an unaccompanied solo before the band tears in, dazzling the listener with unison sax-and-trumpet patterns that barrel forth with the unstoppable momentum of a freight train—a mesmerizing performance that leaves the listener stunned by the end of its ten-minute run. “We Are Not All in This Together” likewise dazzles, especially during an opening section that sees Thomson on clarinet pairing up for a never-ending series of unison lines with Felder prior to the guitarist's solo turn. Thomson, it seems, enjoys engaging each of his partners in like manner, with Kennedy going toe-to-toe with both the alto saxist and Johnson in the opening minutes of “Welding For Freedom.” Offsetting these composed sections are solo spots that Felder, Johnson, and Thomson dig into with fervour.

In contrast to the uptempo title track, “Spring” casts the band in a reflective and dramatic light at a slower tempo and affords Armstrong a chance to solo at length as well. Of all of the six pieces, it's “Bend Towards Light” that's, in its first half especially, the most through-composed, something particularly noticeable when glockenspiel becomes part of the intricate melodic fabric. Describing the music as demanding and complex risks creating the impression that listening to Settle is tough going. In fact, as intricate as Thomson's compositions tend to be, they also swing with conviction and determination, primary credit for which must go to the musicians involved. On this fiery outing, Slow/Fast's playing packs a visceral punch.

November 2014