Triptych (Luminous) is a powerful debut for Sloth Racket, a quintet of improvisers from London and England’s north west led by saxophonist Cath Roberts.
The Sloth Racket sound is broadly comparable to that of Tim Berne’s Bloodcount, the mid ’90s New York quintet with the same instrumentation, or the earthier, brawnier sound of Chicago as filtered through Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet.
Lead cut “Crossed Swords” makes its impact with muscular rhythm, unison riffs and spin-out textures. Roberts’ baritone and Sam Andreae’s tenor sax merge on riffs then divide sharply, Andreae’s high-end trilling approximating no-input electronics while Roberts’ bari keeps things grounded.
That punchy opening statement gives almost immediately to open-framework extemporisation, featuring electric guitarist Anton Hunter in blue sky dialogue with Bennett until a storm of kit percussion and braying saxophony breaks and Hunter stomps on chain fx to match the music’s suddenly heightened charge. Roughly bowed bass and baritone then chew over abstractions before locking onto a driving groove à la Vandermark, which forms the basis of the rest of the piece.
“Circling” begins stripped down to pecks and scratches, and a denuded theme picked in needlepoint guitar. An overlay of richer bowed bass entwined with warm baritone saxophone leads to breakout melodicism, but, rather than go with the free flow, Roberts strips things back again, exposing interrelationships, allowing sparingly irruptive percussion and Seth Bennett’s run-away double bass to frame a developing alto/baritone sax accord.
These compositions – debuted at Sloth Racket’s premiere at Gateshead Jazz Festival 2015 – combine Roberts’ written material (“fragments” or “broad frameworks”) with free improvisation, and the group sound matches the raw verve of enthusiasm for the project with an integrity founded on longstanding, interlocking relationships: Seth Bennett and Johnny Hunter also help drive Martin Archer’s percussion-heavy Engine Room Favourites; Anton Hunter and Sam Andreae are longstanding musical partners while also co-running Efpi Records; and Roberts and Anton Hunter operate as a sax/guitar duo under the entirely apposite name Ripsaw Catfish.
Back to Triptych, and Roberts might’ve written the double-length (20 minute) “Endgame” around Anton Hunter’s guitar part, but it’s carried by Bennett’s steady, pliant bass thrum and Johnny Hunter’s simmering percussion. Hunter starts out sounding glitchy and distorted, as if patched through a shonky practice amp, then switches to edgy, articulate fretwork in a highly-charged dialogue with tenor sax, and reverts to raw sound when slow contrabass bowing picks up the composition’s underlying melody.
The quintet sustain a mood of shadowy introspection that never loses its musical sensibility until, eventually, the melodic undercurrent draws everything together in progressive intensity. The draw-down that comes in place of a climax is characterised by real delicacy, not least in the soft saxophonic enveloping of Hunter’s shimmering guitar.
Triptych‘s three pieces were written as a suite, and although each is strong on its own the album is probably best heard that way. The energy of “Crossed Swords” grabs the attention and “Endgame” demonstrates Roberts’ ability to orchestrate mood, texture and dynamics, but “Circling” is perhaps the stand-out composition.
Sloth Racket is just one of Cath Roberts’ projects. She also leads and plays baritone sax in the septet Quadraceratops, and plays alongside Quadraceratops’ Tom Ward in the alto saxophonist’s Madwort Sax Quartet. She also co-runs the Luminous label and LUME productions. With all this activity – she was even responsible for Triptych‘s hand-printed sleeve design – she’s already one of the most dynamic and enterprising figures in British Jazz, and with Sloth Racket she’s staking a bold claim to the future.
Sam Andreae tenor sax; Cath Roberts baritone sax; Anton Hunter guitar; Seth Bennett bass; Johnny Hunter drums.
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