Patrick Zimmerli Quartet: Shores Against Silence

Recorded on June 16, 1992 when New York saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli was only twenty-three, Shores Against Silence captures a precocious and preternaturally gifted artist near the beginning of what would develop into an even more impressive career marked by innovation and artistic ambition (Clockworks, the album by his new quartet featuring The Bad Plus's Ethan Iverson, is scheduled for a 2017 Songlines release). It's startling to think that only now are the album's quartet performances being made publicly available as the second volume in Songlines' Archive series. Joining the leader are pianist Kevin Hays, bassist Larry Grenadier, and drummer Tom Rainey on a six-song set that clocks in at a breezy thirty-nine minutes.

At twenty-three, many a saxophonist's time and energy are dedicated to absorbing the works of Davis, Ellington, et al. and trying to find a way to develop an original voice not overly influenced by towering figures like Coltrane, Rollins, and Shorter. Zimmerli, it appears, had already leaped far beyond his contemporaries, not so much in his playing but in his conceptual approach. At the time of this recording, he was immersed in studying twentieth-century composers such as Bartok, Boulez, and Stockhausen, and intent on integrating their ideas into his own writing (it's perhaps worth noting that while the material was recorded in 1992, the writing process for the project began two years earlier when he was twenty-one). Whereas another player might be testing out a new approach to “All the Things You Are,” Zimmerli was boldly attempting to infuse the jazz tradition with the ideas and techniques of the classical avant-garde.

“The Paw,” its title an interesting riff on Duchamp's “Readymades” concept (it involves the idea of divesting a work of the artist's signature, la patte or the paw, and thereby liberating the artist from too-restrictive norms), shows Zimmerli pushing beyond the confines of traditional harmony with angular piano and saxophone expressions and a rhythm approach that eschews conventional support for a freer, elastic style. There are moments where the explosiveness of the attack and the composition's unusual melodic trajectory call to mind Miles's band during the Nefertiti period (it's hard not to hear a little bit of Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock in the playing of Rainey and Hays once “Hephaestus” picks up steam). Here and elsewhere, Zimmerli shows himself embracing the possibilities dissonance affords and extending harmonic conventions into daring new areas. In that regard, a connecting line can be drawn between Shores Against Silence and Ornette's first albums (Something Else!!!!, Tomorrow is the Question!), not so much in any similarity between the saxophonists' playing styles (which isn't much) but in how both artists attempt to re-set the boundaries of jazz form.

“The Paw” won first prize in the first BMI/Thelonious Monk Institute composers competition in 1993, but it's not the most daring of the six pieces featured. That distinction, to these ears, falls to the Boulez-inspired “Conceptualysis,” which less glides than stumbles forth, its free-floating drum patterns and jagged melodic gestures grounded by Grenadier's steady bass pulse. That boldness is just as evident in the ballad-styled setting “Three Dreams of Repose” (with extra percussive colour added by Satoshi Takeishi) and the rather Monk-ish “Athena.” Not everything pushes against convention so fervently, however, the clearest evidence of which is “Soft Blues,” which closes the album on a satisfyingly swinging note. In doing so, it also emphasizes that as much as Shores Against Silence is marked by a bold desire on Zimmerli's part to advance into new territory, it never wholly severs its ties to jazz tradition and its fundamental grounding in swing.

January 2017