Ken Thomson: Thaw
Cantaloupe Music

I recall reading an interview a number of years ago wherein Lou Reed expressed fervent admiration for Ornette Coleman's “Ramblin'.” It wasn't so much the endorsement that stayed with me, however, but rather Reed's description of Coleman's Change of the Century tune as rock'n'roll. What he meant, of course, was that the recording exudes the spirit and raw energy of rock'n'roll. I'm reminded of Reed's comment as I listen to Ken Thomson's Thaw, which, on paper at least, looks to be a set of two classical chamber music pieces, one performed by the Jack string quartet (the four-part Thaw) and the other by the strings plus Thomson's bass clarinet (the three-part Perpetual). Put the recording on, however, and it becomes immediately apparent that the ultra-intense Thaw is no polite Sunday matinee performance.

Though it's funereal in tone, “underlying” inaugurates Perpetual, which naturally benefits from the marked timbral contrast between the bass clarinet and the strings, with a powerful sense of momentum as it methodically undertakes an ascent into a bleeding high register. Momentum is even more conspicuous during “Bad idea” when Thomson's bass clarinet appears as a non-stop barrage of sixteenth notes that the quartet punctuates with the aggressive counterpoint of its own stabbing attack. In its title, the third movement, “Don Pullen says its OK,” references the late jazz pianist who routinely challenged traditions with his iconoclastic playing. Thomson, however, chooses not to mimic the pianist's style but instead appears to pay homage to him with a movement that's unfailingly elegiac in tone.

Over the course of its four movements, Thaw makes good on its title, with its form changing from the piercing, Bartokian gestures and harsh, defiant stabs of the opening “Concrete” to the comparatively pliant closer “Thaw,” which alternates between lyrical solo passages and urgent syncopated rhythms executed with brutal efficiency. The second part “Dig” finds the players united at the start before branching out into separate, serpentine currents that flow sinuously in and around one another. That liquefied quality carries over into the melancholy reverie “Hole,” where soft phrases alternate with pizzicato playing in a delicate manner that's noticeably contrasting in character to the album in general.

Thomson, a Brooklyn-based clarinetist, saxophonist, and composer, brings a rich history to his Cantaloupe Music debut. He plays clarinet in the Bang On A Can All-Stars, leads the twelve-piece Asphalt Orchestra, and plays sax in Gutbucket, a punk/jazz outfit that's issued five recordings on Knitting Factory, Enja, NRW, Cantaloupe, and Cuneiform. Throughout the forty-five-minute Thaw, the music's rhythms pulsate with a kinetic energy and exuberance Steve Reich would understandably admire; in fact, a comment by the New York composer forms part of the press release: “Want to hear some musicians really digging in? Hang on—Thaw is really moving.”

January 2014