False Ghosts, Minor Fears
See Through 4
All-Set! Editions (all-set.org)
These two Toronto bands have much in common. Each is led by a bassist/composer, Pete Johnston in the case of See Through 4, and they share some key musicians. Rob Clutton’s eponymous trio includes saxophonist Karen Ng and drummer Nick Fraser; so too does the See Through 4, with pianist Marilyn Lerner making it a quartet.
For many jazz musicians, composition can be a perfunctory task, but Rob Clutton takes it seriously and his groups, like the long-running Cluttertones, are designed for it. His new trio plays jazz as if it were sculpture. Lines are clearly etched, content reduced to bare meaning and intent, with a special structural and emotional clarity. Clutton can reduce a line to a spare series of deeply felt, highly resonant tones, while the group that he has assembled couldn’t be more attuned to his work. It’s immediately evident in the opening Strata, brought into sharp focus by Fraser’s insistent cymbals and Ng’s Morse Code-like monotone. Counsel of Primaries veers toward Caribbean dance, with Ng investing even the briefest phrases with a wealth of emotion. Sterling suggests a kind of dissonant prayer, Clutton’s bowed harmonics coming to the fore amidst Ng’s long tones and Fraser’s gently scraped cymbals. Cloak is less austere, but it too, carries with it a sense of reverie, an engagement with resonance as an active participant, feeding back into the music.
Given their shared personnel, it’s striking just how different the two groups are, their identities intimately connected both to the leaders’ compositional styles and their partners’ insights. Clutton’s minimalism gives way to Pete Johnston’s further extension of Lennie Tristano’s already abstracted linear vision. In a playful manner all his own, though, Johnston’s pieces can provide a series of loose frames for a series of solos. Another Word for Science has pianist Marilyn Lerner begin an unaccompanied solo with a series of witty keyboard asides, with Johnston and Fraser entering tentatively until the three have created a tangle of kinetic lines; Ng uses the free dialogue to explore a distinctive zone of her own, a compound mood that can mingle celebration and lamentation in a single phrase, while Fraser solos over the band’s final extended version of the theme. Battling in Extra Ends employs a stiff punctuation of bass and drums in unison to frame a flowing, balladic Lerner improvisation. The Sidewalks Are Watching begins with an up-tempo boppish theme, but advances through a series of rhythmic displacements that have individual band members occupying distinct temporal dimensions.
Given how much the two bands have in common, Clutton, Johnston and their gifted associates create two very different worlds.