‘Volition’ is Alex Ward’s latest investigation into the borderlands between composition and improvisation. His assembled players – known collectively as Item 10 – work through various types of scored material, some of it deploying conventional notation as well as graphical and textual instructions, with spaces allowed for improvised forays. Two long pieces break the 10tet into smaller components, giving the players space and the individual groupings more flexibility to vary their approach. Ward is composer, component and a (sort of) conductor here, playing clarinet and guitar while also acting as genial overseer of his own creation. Imagine a chunk of the Cecil Taylor Unit mixed with Butch Morris’s conducted improvisation, then seasoned with a dose of Ellingtonian flamboyance. Get my drift? Tasty.
Once a dissonant, bristling overture is out of the way, the rest of ‘Volition’ provides ample evidence that Ward’s method brings results. Pace, texture and scale shift continually, with a dexterity that wouldn’t normally be achievable in a pure improvising ensemble. Small group tangles retain their free improv bite, while waves of massed dissonance deploy hefty avant-garde idioms with aplomb.
An early section of ‘Entreaty’ sees a drum-trombone-bass trio of Andrew Lisle, Sarah Gail Brand and Otto Willberg cut a sprightly dance before shifting down into a ruminative Brand gurgle. Later, an equally protean trio of Ward, Lisle and Joe Smith Sands (guitar) is a nervy entrée for a slow-motion group onslaught.
In fact, as way of keeping a bunch of talented musicians, many of whom know and play with each other regularly, on their toes, Ward’s strategy is difficult to fault. He’s hardly the most dictatorial ego and so his process manifests itself not as immutable laws handed down from on high but as structures through which the squad can ramp up the power and acuity of their own approaches.
The fantastic amplified clarinet double-header that crops up halfway through the title cut is satisfyingly lean and mean as a result, with Yoni Silver and Ward moving from growling horror to strangled vaudeville quackery in quick succession. After this, Ward gives the team one last blowout – there’s even some fuzzed guitar shredding that’d put his Dead Days Beyond Help alter-ego to shame – before gradually damping the flames until only the glowing, glowering embers remain.