Contrabassist/composer Dominic Lash is a significant but undersung figure in British improvisation and new music, collaborating with Evan Parker and Tony Conrad among many others, playing jazz in the transatlantic Convergence Quartet, and forming the Set Ensemble to realise minimalist chamber works, including Wandelweiser-inpired interrogations of silence on recordings for Another Timbre.
Extremophile is his quartet’s second album. It’s three years since Opabinia appeared on Babel Label. In the interim, pianist Alexander Hawkins has ceded his place to multi-instrumentalist Alex Ward, who plays both electric guitar and clarinet.
That’s a significant change, reorienting the Quartet’s sound away from something broadly comparable to that of the deeply jazzy Alexander Hawkins Ensemble and closer, at times, to that of Ward’s more combative post-jazz outfit Forebrace – a mode that suits both drummer Javier Carmona, who came up playing with rock bands in Madrid, and saxophonist Ricardo Tejero, who plays alongside members of Spanish alt. metal outfit Orthodox in the unorthodox jazz Sputnik Trio.
That said, Extremophile is a curiously eclectic collection, and nothing here is as harsh as the album’s title suggests (an extremophiles is a microorganism that thrives in extreme conditions).
Lash’s track selection includes four original compositions that meld his interests in contemporary classical and avant-jazz, plus new arrangements of pieces by Cecil Taylor and 14th century French composer Jean Solage. But it gets underway with an unremarkable introductory improv titled “Puddle Ripple”, all done and dusted in under two minutes.
The open-form intro serves mainly to underline the surprisingly cool pulse that keeps Lash’s “Mr. S.B.” in tight focus. The leader claims an early nimble-fingered solo spot, and his leanness of expression rubs off on the following passage of guitar trioism: it’s only when Tejero also steps up that any friction’s raised.
Ward’s eccentric but convincing take on Solage’s “Fumeux Fume” is a radical recasting of the a cappella original, but it retains the essence of its late mediaeval flavour, at least until Carmona’s rousing percussive flourish at the end.
The following sequence shows Ward’s range: “Pálpito” (04:57) is a simmering shimmer of barely suppressed tension, with Ward’s guitar grinding and chafing at the restraint while the freer Tejero circular-breathes in linear trills; “Unbeknownst” a perky, two minute long duet for sax and clarinet; and “Slailing” (05:56) a very quiet meditation on grounded arco bass lines – at least until the rude interruption of Ward’s lacerative guitar, introducing a bracing dose of fractious quartet aggression.
The album’s highlight is its 15 minute closing number, “Mixed, Mixed”, which is Cecil Taylor’s “Mixed” recast. The original first appeared on a 1961 Impulse! album, Into the Hot, which was credited to The Gil Evans Orchestra – despite Evans had nothing whatsoever to do with the writing, arrangement or performance by an expanded Cecil Taylor Unit.
Tejero begins his telling of the theme in classic jazz mode, but his tone sours as his backing slips from respect for tradition into something much more rudely abrasive, a prickly, kinetic improvisation, and then a passage of nuanced stillness. And so it goes, the quartet cycling fluidly through a range of modes at greater or lesser intensities. But it coheres, somehow, and ends on a sweet note of complete and unreserved calmness.
Lash has crammed a lot in here, but he’s orchestrated the quartet with precision economy. It’s such a lean unit that there’s no flab or faff, and this is a various, distinctive set, and beautifully recorded too.
Dominic Lash – double bass, compositions, arrangements; Javier Carmona – drums, percussion; Ricardo Tejero – reeds; Alex Ward – electric guitar, clarinet.
Stefan Keune / Dominic Lash / Steve Noble – Fractions.
The Convergence Quartet – Owl Jacket.
Alex Ward Quintet – Glass Shelves and Floor.
Tejero / Serrato / Díaz – Sputnik Trio.
Laubrock / Brice / Carmona + Hanslip / Carmona – Catatumbo / Dosados.
Buy Extremophile via Iluso Records.