BY MICHAEL TOLAND
The roots of Uncharted Territories go back to the mid-sixties and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble, then the U.K.’s premier free jazz outfit. Bassist Dave Holland and saxophonist Evan Parker performed on the collective’s second album Karyōbin, and remained friends over the decades, even though they didn’t play together. Until now, that is, when Holland decided to reconnect musically with his old pal for another round of spontaneous composition, with keyboardist Craig Taborn (Holland’s bandmate in Prism and one of the most forward-thinking young lions in jazz) and percussionist Ches Smith (an avant-gardist with feet in both jazz and rock) joining in on the fun.
With terms like “spontaneity” and “free” thrown around, one might be misled into thinking the music on these two disks is complete chaos – indeed, all but three of the cuts don’t even have titles, just shorthand for the number of musicians involved, the day of the week it was recorded, and which take. While there’s certainly a lack of formal structure on most of these tracks, to assume they’re free-for-alls is a mistake. While well-versed in free improvisation, each musician here is equally skilled at composition, which allows them to think of these recordings as songs, not freak-outs. Thus a full-bodied performance like “QW2” flows as if it was written beforehand, an actual melody rising from the blend of dissonant piano, blowing sax, pulsing bass and clattering kit work. Other tracks range from duets between bass and percussion, saxophone and percussion or organ and vibraphone to trio takes of sax, bass and percussion or sax, piano and bass. Regardless of lineup, the cuts have an exploratory playfulness, the sound of musicians discovering something new as they divine their relationships in real time. Given the inherent musicality each player boasts, the results never fall into discordance – even at their most frenetic, the tracks still scan as purely musical.
Presumably as anchors, the band includes a trio of actual compositions: Smith’s “Thought On Earth” and “Unsteady As She Goes” and Holland’s “Q&A.” While more accessible than the improvisations, they’re still of a piece – no easy swing or traditional bop derivations here. Uncharted Territories is a challenge, but it’s an inclusive one – Holland and company aren’t interested in being forbidding, just in inviting listeners into a world that disorienting but liberating.
DOWNLOAD: “QW2,” “QT13,” “Bass – Percussion T1”