Milo Fine
Free Jazz Ensemble,
(Emanem, 2001)

Appearances to the contrary, the core of the Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble is Milo Fine himself (on electronics, drums, piano, reeds, violin and celeste) and guitarist Steve Gnitka; Jason Shapiro (piano, synth) and Nathan Smith (basses, bass clarinet) make a quartet with them for two tracks, while Scott Newell (tenor sax, voice) forms a trio with them on the fifth and final piece.

Despite Fine's multi-instrumental palette, he is primarily a percussionist, secondarily a pianist and clarinettist and only marginally a player of the other listed instruments.

That said, Fine is a serious instrumentalist, and he's no anti-technique guy. Quite the reverse of using his collection of instruments as random sound-makers, he appears to have added them very gradually, working up a distinctive technique on each. As a percussionist, he's busy and rattly, taking the rhythmic undulations of free jazz and welding them to the timbral world of fellow Europeans like John Stevens. His attack is brittle, sharp and usually multiple.

As a clarinettist, Fine is listenable but no one, I think, would get too excited about his chirrups and finger-pattern runs. We've heard it before, and done better. But although he sounds like a poor man's Butcher or Doneda, he's capable of moments of real invention, and his real strengths emerge when he lets a striking lyricism break out of the hackneyed avant cliches.

Gnitka is something is a mystery. On track 1 he plays almost nothing but open harmonics, making the track essentially a Fine solo with gentle accompaniment from the guitarist. The second of the two duets finds him more forthcoming, but not much more. He's a withdrawn player who's more than happy to let his partner's big personality take centre stage.

Nothing wrong with this, of course, especially when Fine is clearly quite capable of carrying the show, and Gnitka turns out to be good at subtly complementing him. When he does come forth, however, the guitarist is capable of some impressive soloistic statements, jazzy and sinuous in contrast to Fine's hard staccato.

Shapiro and Smith might almost have made the group a guitar-piano-bass-drums quartet; the music, however, is further from jazz than was the duet's, and closer to the chamber music of a group like IST. The young Shapiro's background is a melange of rock and improv, and like Fine he started life as a drummer. His playing needs work but it has energy and rhythmic dynamism, and he has no trouble fitting into things here.

For their second piece here he reveals a Romantic side which is picked up by Fine on violin and Smith on arco bass, creating a thing of rather ravishing loveliness which is far removed from the crudeness of the previous track. Although there's nothing sophisticated in what he does here, it does reveal a willingness to engage with a breadth of diferent paces which is no bad thing. Fine's violin playing is a bit like yours or mine, but it makes for effective ambiance.

Newell brings a change of perspective to things. His composition ".181" is a mid-tempo, boppish tune and his playing raucous and bluesey, so for the first time the term "free jazz" seems properly applicable. He even sings a bit towards the end, although maybe "sings" is too strong a word for his preaching recitation of a small collection of apparently random phrases. It does, however, spark off some of his strongest playing, and although he's not an amazing instrumentalist what he plays has coherence and a pleasing narrative about it.

Gnitka is, it would appear, on more familiar territory here, too; although he has not real jazz under his fingers, this works to his advantage and his weird, minimal comping is undoubtedly cool. He's reminiscent of a more relaxed, less up-front Sonny Sharrock which is, naturally, no bad thing at all. About halfway through he takes a solo that is impressively realised and dispels any doubts that is tentative approach on some of the foregoing music might have raised.

The overall impression one gets here is of relaxed but quite intense sessions. Fine plays furiously but, perhaps because he entirely eschews the ride cymbal, never comes on like a blasting jazz drummer. The tone is simultaneously busy and sparse; a pretty continuous blizzard of notes or percussions co-exists with an almost pointillist aesthetic. This is a CD which will repay many listenings: fascinating, involving and perhaps even brilliant.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]
Rambles: 11 October 2002