Kevin O'Neil,
Sous Rature
(Barking Hoop, 2000)

Kevin Norton,
In Context/Out of Context
(Barking Hoop, 2000)

Drummer Kevin Norton's new Barking Hoop label already has some impressive things in its tiny catalogue: first his collaboration with Anthony Braxton, For Guy Debord, and now these two projects, each one an extended piece combining composition with improvisation in ways strongly reminiscent of some of Braxton's own strategies.

Guitarist Kevin O'Neil is the composer of Sous Rature, a large-scale structure for jazzy free improvisations to inhabit. If that sounds like Braxton, the composer has worked fairly extensively with the great reedsman, and so that shouldn't be to surprising. Anyway, the music turns out to sound nothing like Braxton at all.

Compositionally speaking, the piece is very straightforward -- a loud group blow lasting about fifteen minutes, then a feature for each of the saxophonists bookending an extended O'Neil and Norton duet (in the middle of this, in turn, there's a drum solo). Unsurprisingly, the piece ends as it began, with a furious group blast, completing a Chinese-box structure which is simple enough not to get in the way of the music.

O'Neil himself is a good, sharp-fingered guitarist who plays bone-dry electric, using a combination of precise, angularly jazzy runs and more gestural raked or tremolo-picked shapes. He's an engaging figure throughout, although like most guitarists he struggles when energy levels rise too high, and ends up scraping around at his notes trying to keep up. Surprising, then, that he should place such loud, fast, intense music at beginning and end of this piece, forcing him to keep pace with Steve Lehman and Jackson Moore, both characterful alto saxophonists with ferrets down their trouserlegs.

The central sections become increasingly spacious, and this works far better for O'Neil, giving him time to think before he plays. His duet with Norton his probably the most impressive thing here; O'Neil isn't a fantastically accomplished player, but he's very musical, while Norton is both -- and both are on the same wavelength.

As a composition, this is a pretty thin thing (it certainly doesn't need the rather self-aggrandising references to Derrida in the sleeve notes), but what you hear for most of this CD isn't a composition. It's a quartet who understand one another well, playing intense and powerful music. They must be exhausting and exhilarating to see live; overall, they probably need a touch more polish to really carry off what they're trying to do here, but the music is certainly enjoyable and few who are happy in principal with the trade-off will be disappointed.

Norton's own In Context/Out of Context also features two saxophonists (David Bindman and Bob DeBallis) and the drummer, although there's no guitarist this time. Like For Guy Debord, this is more of a suite than a single piece with an over-arching structure. That's a compositional form which has worked well in jazz for much of its history, and it seems to be one Norton is intent on exploring.

Norton's compositional skills -- as a writer of melodies and harmonic structures, that is -- are extremely impressive. He has a way with disjointed heads made up from apparently unrelated bits which makes them sit quite naturally together. The dual influences of Charlie Parker and Cecil Taylor can both be clearly heard; "Variations in Bb," for example, starts off like an uptempo Bird number, but develops in intensity and complexity until it is more reminiscent of the pianist.

Really, however, this suite of compositions (and the music is through-composed for much of this CD, with improvisation providing local colour rather than "solos") is in Norton's style, nobody else's, although there are, inevitably, some heavy nods to Braxton's large-scale compositions. There's a splendid vibes spot for him here, and the piece opens with a drum solo, but although his playing is to the fore it's the whole effect which makes an impact, and the horn writing is what stays with you.

These two CDs are a strong contrast. Norton's approach is much more composition-based, creating a suite of pieces which happen to be played without breaks (the pieces are, very helpfully, indexed on the CD). O'Neil's approach is much more hands-off, providing a simple structure (as far as one can tell) for a hot band to blow in. Both records are successful; which you prefer will be mostly a matter of taste.

[ by Richard Cochrane ]