Portuguese saxophonist Rodrigo Amado has produced a rich and varied catalogue of free music over the past few years. I first encountered him via the album Searching for Adam (NotTwo, 2010), for which he assembled an excellent American group in John Hébert, Gerald Cleaver and Taylor Ho Bynum. He’d previously recorded twice (in 2006 and 2009) with the formidable rhythm section of Kent Kessler and Paal Nilssen-Love. His working groups, including Motion Trio and Wire Quartet (both reviewed here), are just as potent, if not more fiery.
For This is Our Language, recorded in a Lisbon studio in December 2012, Amado assembled an new American group with formidable collective pedigree, pairing the returning Kessler for the first time with drummer Chris Corsano, and adding Joe McPhee on pocket trumpet and alto sax.
The album title This is Our Language hat-tips an Ornette Coleman Quartet classic, This is Our Music (1965); an intriguing choice, as that album consolidated rather than debuted Coleman’s new conception of collective dynamics, and also included a rare concession to the tradition, with a respectful take on a jazz standard, “Embraceable You”.
It’s a big ask for McPhee to match Ho Bynum’s copacetic rapport with Amado on Searching for Adam, but he manages to do so with quiet authority. Neither reedsman is iconoclastic, as Coleman was, but they’ve each originated distinctive personal voices within the free jazz idiom seeded in the loam of the then-nascent New Thing by Coleman’s conception of Jazz to Come.
Amado’s sound is rich and soulful, in the tradition of Coleman Hawkins and Sonny Rollins – deep, vibrant harmonics sounded with tenderness, tempered power, and exhortatory urgency. Amado’s in his early fifties. McPhee is in his mid seventies, and best known these days for raucous associations with The Thing and Peter Brötzmann. But his previous studies in “sonic awareness” with Pauline Oliveros, and performances with Oliveros’ Deep Listening Band attest that he’s a thoughtful and incisive interlocutor.
The album comprises five improvised pieces, all 7-11 minutes long, the two shortest being trio numbers. Corsano sits out on the opening “The Primal Word”, allowing Amado and McPhee, here on alto sax, to establish a rapport on a smoky, soulful duet. When Kessler comes in, McPhee plays some contrastingly piquant notes, then steps back to allow Amado to duet with Kessler before cutting in himself. It’s a low-key start.
The first sound at the top of the title track is that of a whirly tube, introducing a Chris Corsano solo: a rain of soft percussives onto the kit frame and across taut skins, then a splashily propulsive free rhythm with snare accents, all underpinned by bass drum insistency. Kessler then comes in with rapid, rhythmic fingering and McPhee, sounding taut and urgent on pocket trumpet, matched by sour, strangulated phrasing from Amado.
Corsano’s style is busily kinetic, pressing and energising the others, perfectly matched by Kessler’s pliability, strength and stability. Amado and McPhee play on the friction they generate, drawing on its heat and tension but always pulling back from excess. Where a less masterful group might tip into blow-out excess, “This is Our Language” is a reined-in performance, long reed tones meshing over its cooling rhythm and bleeding into susurrant vocalisations, which echo the opening whirly tube. Amado plays the piece out with a beautifully pensive coda.
“Theory of Mind (for Joe)” is a febrile improvisation, a trio piece minus its dedicatee. Corsano gets another extended break, hitting harder than ever, reining back only to tempt Amado back into a rhythmic gyre of tightening intensity. Again, the ply of that tension is supremely calibrated, the performance deftly shaped.
The broad-canvas “Ritual Evolution” is more spacious. At first Amado and McPhee, back on trumpet, peck amid percussive patter while Kessler bows lyrically in the background, but the piece soon opens up and gains momentum. Corsano is particularly vital here, his style freely expansive but maintaining rhythmic bounce as Amado and McPhee blur laconic phrases into streams of invention, then slip apart. McPhee ultimately sounds elegiac, while Amado plays in clipped, sour phrases.
The last number, “Human Behavior” begins as sax/drums duet, Amado pitching short, chewy phrases into Corsano’s protean turbulence. It’s down to Kessler to provide an anchor, and he takes his reward in a plucked solo of taut plasticity, subsiding into a beautifully subdued dialogue with McPhee. When the bassist switches to pyretic bowing, McPhee turns to pressurised susurration, and Corsano adds subtle touches of bowed cymbal as the tension in the performance slowly ebbs, and the album ends unexpectedly with this recedence.
Let’s remind ourselves that this is essentially a pick-up group. It’s astonishing what such an aggregation of individualists can achieve when they’re collectively steeped in a common language, when they can reformulate its syntax with such spontaneity and depth of feeling.
Rodrigo Amado tenor sax; Joe McPhee pocket trumpet, alto sax; Kent Kessler double bass; Chris Corsano drums.
Rodrigo Amado Motion Trio & Peter Evans – The Freedom Principle + Rodrigo Amado – Wire Quartet.
Akira Sakata & Jim O’Rourke with Chikamorachi & Merzbow – Flying Basket.
Peter Brötzmann Chicago Tentet – Concert for Fukushima DVD.
Peter Kowald, Kent Kessler, Fred Lonberg-Holm – Flats Fixed.