Last year’s debut, Triptych, was broadly comparable, I thought, to Tim Berne’s Bloodcount and, at times, to “the earthier, brawnier sound of Chicago as filtered through Peter Brötzmann’s Tentet.” Bloodcount remains the best point of reference, but Shapeshifters is distinctly European, freer, and more relaxed in its assertions.
As before, all compositions are by bandleader/baritone saxophonist Cath Roberts.
‘Edges’ (12:12) begins with a slithery, low register duet between Roberts and Seth Bennett’s bowed bass. Sam Andreae’s entry on tenor admits more space, and that trio patiently teases melodic motifs out of terse exchanges. But as Bennett turns to nimble plucking and Anton Hunter introduces cleanly picked electric guitar, those motifs take on a free but distinctly jazzy feel, with traces of Ellingtonia. Drummer Johnny Hunter is restrained, barely there for most of this, but he rustles up a more openly abstract mood, prompting a surprisingly brusque finale.
‘Tracking’ (10:31) has light Harmolodic feel. The guitar is more chordal and concise, and the reeds’ licks trades are twisty and aphoristic. It’s elastic, changeable music, but the tendency is to restraint. Halfway in, and all’s reduced to a baritone/drums duet. This is more terse and potentially belligerent, but the re-entry of clean guitar licks and relatively honeyed tenor act as a balm. There’s a brief, late interval of open improv, but cello-like bass bowing sets up a cooly thematic concluding section.
‘Bark’ (7:51) is grittier, but also quieter, once the opening exchange of curt agitations and abrasions grounded by what sounds like electric bass settles into a thread of bass bowing, and everyone lays well back behind gently tidal malleted toms. The endgame focuses again on Roberts, who plays with tough, raspy tenderness (shades of Ben Webster), before all dissolves into light-touch abstractions, brittle metallic percussion and the twittering of what sounds like an ocarina.
‘Shapeshifters’ (13:36) sets out as a much tougher proposition, but its post-Ayler unison intro soon gives onto a bowed bass solo which, in turn, yields to the stop-start intricacies of a no-reeds guitar trio. The full group reprises the Ayler-esque theme six minutes in, then breaks it down and gets all metamorphic, tending again towards silence in a particularly lovely passage of shimmering guitar FX lapped by peripheral percussives. Bennett plucks the group out of that with emphatic bass, and he’s joined by Hunter, now playing firmly, chordally, as the saxes start to generate heat and the whole group set to riffing on the outro.
For all the restraint on display this is meaty, powerful music, thoughtful and multi-dimensional with no lacunae and no navel-gazing. And Roberts’s authorial stamp is strong, so Sloth Racket are shaping up as one of the most distinctive groups to emerge from the current UK Jazz/improv nexus.
She even puts that stamp on the physical product: CDs come in sleeves hand-printed by Roberts in 8 variants of design, which is a nice personal touch.
Buy Shapeshifters direct from Luminous Bandcamp.