Dirk Serries’ A New Wave Of Jazz probes the borders between free improvisation and contemporary composition. Neither as hectic as Serries’ own output with Colin Webster’s Raw Tonk label, nor as hermetic as those Wandelweiser cats, A New Wave of Jazz nevertheless draws on both their strengths to bring an idiosyncratic seam of exploratory musicking into life.
That name is a bit of a misnomer, to be honest. True, early releases included brassy, clattery hubbub from outfits such as Kodian Trio and top-drawer improvisers like John Dikeman and Andrew Lisle. Recently, however, things have started to take a more considered turn. Serries’ creation of the Tonus ensemble was a milestone, I think, giving him a framework to turn down the heat and sharpen the focus, nudging a rotating squad of musicians into textural and restrained territories. Thus the individualistic excesses of free playing are transformed into decentred emanations of a multi-nodal entity.
Sounds fancy, right? But all it means is that deep listening and careful exchange – with the occasional strategic disruption, natch – produce rigorous, open-ended improvisations whose dynamism doesn’t require performative fireworks to get where they want to go.
A New Wave Of Jazz isn’t just about Tonus, although that group typifies Serrie’s aesthetic. As this latest batch shows, there’s room both for straight-ahead free improv, exemplified by the excellent Benedict Taylor and Serries duo, as well as the more scripted approach of Christoph Schiller and Anouck Genthon’s chilly interplay. Tonus is here too, of course, with a quintet release that’s as good as anything they’ve done so far. In jazz terms, it’s way off the map. But it’s fertile territory, for sure.
Christoph Schiller & Anouck Genthon: Zeitweise Leichter Schneefall
The seven brief pieces that comprise ‘Zeitweise Leichter Schneefall’ are intense doses of meditation in which the concentration of its performers demands equal focus in the listener. Under Schiller and Genthon’s guidance, violin, spinet and voice release their sounds gradually, moving towards and away from each other like icebergs guided by deep oceanic currents. This is sound that is not so much organized as unmoored, whose slow drift belies the dedication and restraint required to actualise it in such a compelling fashion.
If the prevailing atmosphere of ‘Zeitweise Leichter Schneefall’ is somewhat frosty, Schiller’s inclusion of the voice in his compositional palette ensures that the presence of the human is constant and undeniable. Lung-driven wafts soothe the glassy tang of his spinet (a relative of the harpischord) while plosive blurts punctuate Genthon’s woody arcos. Nevertheless this is sparse, uncompromising stuff, with melody eschewed in favour of monotonal expressiveness: slowly bowed, vibrato-less strings; solitary bursts of brittle, resonant spinet; and breathy, wordless mantras. Ego-free moments within the tumult of the present.
Benedict Taylor & Dirk Serries: Puncture Cycle
‘Puncture Cycle’ marks a welcome reacquaintance with Benedict Taylor for me. I’d lost track of him a little since his outstanding work with Anton Mobin on 2014’s ‘Stow | Phasing’ and his equally vibrant contribution to the jittery freedoms of the Thompson, Jackson and Taylor trio. This dynamite pairing with Serries sees him maintaining his characteristically strong form, letting loose typically flamboyant salvos to match his partner’s knotty, barbed-wire guitar actions.
The duo’s respective idiosyncrasies add dynamism and timbral variation to what might otherwise be a too-cosy meeting of string-orientated brains. Serries, on acoustic guitar, scrupulously avoids politeness. His guttural strums and needling plucks waste no time leaping into the gutter and rolling around in its mucky debris. Fortunately, the dense gravity of those jabs and scratches fails to drag Taylor down with them. Impish and intricate, Taylor is always just out of reach, his cavalier swoops darting among the clouds like gangs of sarcastic butterflies. Muddy earth meets tempestuous air. It’s elemental, baby.
Tonus: Ear Duration
Serries has released four Tonus outings on his label so far, each with a slightly different cast of contributors. He and pianist Martina Verhoeven form the core of the group, which fluctuates between duo, trio and larger formations. Here they’re a five-piece (the lineup’s printed on the cover art), laying out three longish pieces, recorded in Hackney, London in October 2018.
The balance of sound and silence is central to Tonus operations, and the squad adhere to this central tenet admirably. ‘Set 1’, cunningly presented last in the running order, is the most effective demonstration, with Verhoeven’s balletic piano motifs creating the foundation for slow outgrowths of texture and tone. Serries, on accordion, and Colin Webster, on flute, offer subtle hoots like a pair of tranquillised owls, while Benedict Taylor provides barely-there touches that float around the edges of Graham Dunning’s snare drum and object scrape. More than the sum of its parts, you get me?
If ‘Set 3’ is the same but different, Taylor and Dunning taking more of a leading role to create tense, circling explorations, ‘Set 2’ rustles up an engaging Adam Bohman-at-the-ashram vibe. Restless bustle and quizzical twangs get moulded into some kind of devotional shape; a result, probably, of the group’s sonic telepathy that locks gesture and intent into communal effort. Although spikier and freer, it keeps its allegiance to the Tonus code locked on.