Madwort is the nom de whatevs of London-based saxophonist Tom Ward who, since 2011, has channelled the acknowledged influences of Steve Coleman, ROVA and Tim Berne into new music for The Madwort Saxophone Quartet, now getting its recorded debut.
He’s also beeen bust meanwhile playing in the trio Ma/ti/om, leading an improvising chamber group dubbed Madwort’s Menagerie, and co-leading a mixed quartet with pianist Adam Fairhall, besides playing in other people’s bands.
In the sax quartet, Madwort plays alto. Chris Williams, who plays both alto and soprano, is best known as a member of Led Bib. Tenor man Andrew Woolf explores a parallel passion for Brazillian choro music as a clarinetist in guitar duo Choro Matiz. And baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts leads Quadraceratops (in which Madwort plays) and Sloth Racket. She also co-founded LUME, the improvised music platform that presented the concert at East London’s Hundred Years Gallery on 16 April 2016, at which Live at Hundred Years Gallery (Efpi) was recorded.
Ward also cites as influences “numerology…the movement of the planet earth through space…and transcriptions of bird song”, all of which I guess we’ll take on trust, though there are perhaps traces of the latter in this music’s pointillist pecking and bob-and-weave agility: I’m reminded of Hank Mobley, as filtered through John Zorn’s News For Lulu.
There are eleven cuts anyway, all nicely shaped, all cut from the same cloth, very tight and dynamic: a little goes a long way. As with Coleman’s M-Base music, the exactitude and angularity gets slightly tiring after a while, and there’s no urban funk in Madwort’s DNA to cut the rhizomatic working-out.
The first track, “After Joshua”, is variably paced, which allows Ward’s alto spiel thoughtfully against more aphoristic accompaniment. The follow-up, “Maps”, traces some pretty romantic contours, seducing the players into surges of impassioned excess. I could have used more of that straining at the bounds, but as one track succeeds the next they mostly seem bound to keep any emotion firmly in check.
Mid set, and “On The Opening of a Dwarf Sunflower” is another downtempo swooner; “Chresmomancy” another tightly codified setting for lyrical solo soliloquy. Then there’s a flurry of agitation on the very aptly titled “Mad Giant Bee”. So, despite its formal parameters, the album’s not without its variety. And yet…
“Chresmomancy” suggests ritual, but even when Roberts’ bari sax gets to plough some deep furrows on “Sieve of Eratosthenes” its title nods to number theory and cerebralism.
Julius Hemphill once telingly titled a piece “Writhing Love Lines” (it was recorded by Tim Berne with David Sanbourne on Diminutive Mysteries), and I’ve always thought that that title captures the sensuality of their interlocution very nicely. Whereas on Madwort’s album there’s plenty of mutual empathy, but little overt sensuality: the majority of lines are dot-to-dot, like star map constellations. And that’s no doubt deliberate.
Madwort’s jaunty pointillism creates liveliness and luminosity, but I found myself, as the album progressed, wanting something like the graceful curve of a melody. Contributions from the other three composers in the group might have been welcome; they’d surely be simpatico.
I’m overstating the negative though: track by track it’s all good. There’s a fine balance to the raw, puckish vitality of each individual performance and the combined quartet’s precision of execution. The musicians evidently know each other well, and they anticipate, shadow and trace each other’s moves with beguiling immediacy.
And the best cuts are saved for last: the lovely, lyrical “Islands in the Green”, and the loosely knotty, relatively easeful “Handbuilt by Robots”, where the quartet’s lines do writhe a little, after all.
Chris Williams – soprano & alto saxophones; Tom Ward – alto saxophone & compositions; Andrew Woolf – tenor saxophone; Cath Roberts – baritone saxophone.
Buy Live at Hundred Years Gallery from Madwort’s Bandcamp.