Big Air – Big Air (Babel, 2009)
I’m baffled and intrigued by this album but, ultimately, I’m also mesmerised by it. The ensemble itself is unconventional enough, with Oren Marshall’s tuba parping substituting for bass and Myra Melford’s mischievous piano hardly keeping to regular harmonic strictures. Then there’s the audacious music, with its generous helping of electronics and effects, and some sly juxtaposing of some traditional influences with highly contemporary approaches to arrangement.
The result risks being cringe-inducing and pretentious and at times there is a nagging sense that this might just be a set of musicians’ jokes. For the most part, though, the playing is playful rather than silly, and the themes are satisfyingly memorable. This kind of adroit and humorous handling of ambitious and difficult music could perhaps be expected from a transatlantic collaboration between London-based trumpeter and saxophonist Chris Batchelor and Steve Buckley with New York’s devilishly confounding Melford. Batchelor and Buckley played as part of memorable Django Bates line-ups, and his influence is never far away in their cheeky compositions.
Drummer Jim Black pins down a righteous groove that roots this music securely but also gives it a driving edge. His playing is relentlessly creative, but he never imposes too greatly. There’s always a sense of space, even when the music is at its most apparently disordered. Buckley’s opener ‘The Wizard’ writhes with a slinky, seductive feel. ‘Airlock’ benefits from a similarly coiled rhythmic impetus.
Melford will always be more Cecil Taylor than Herbie Hancock and her playing may be too interventionist and distracting for some tastes. I’m a fan of her own work, and her delightful harmonium playing on Batchelor’s ‘The Road, The Sky, The Moon’ demonstrates that she is more than capable of playing with sensitivity and delicacy where necessary.
The band make thoughtful use of electronics too. Perhaps the best piece here is ‘Song For The Garlic Seller’ which gradually emerges from some manipulations of tuba and trumpet. The result is a fiery outburst building from a deceptively mysterious introduction. This deployment of tricks and masks is a big component of this group’s innate sense of fun.
The great joy of this fine album is hearing the spirit of spontaneous abstraction merge with a love of the blues and the New Orleans tradition. It’s a provocative mix that will infuriate some as much as it will inspire others. I’m all in favour.