Though you'll read me extolling the virtues of many modes in this venue (rock, jazz, bluegrass, folk, World, prog, etc.), I harbor a somewhat secret pronounced affinity for really well done free jazz and the avant-garde. I think Keith Tippett's responsible for that. When I heard him on King Crimson's Lizard LP back in the 70s, and then in Centipede, something awoke within me. That damned Robert Fripp had accomplished a cataclysm earlier in same fashion from Crimson's very first LP, so I guess a long line of awakenings was inevitable. Such other apocalypses (the word originally means 'revelation' or 'uncovering', a lifting of veils, disclosure of knowledge, not necessarily 'chaos', y'all; you're listening to way too much of that obese babbling idiot Rush Limbaugh; cut it out!) led by circuitous pathways to Oregon, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, and quite a few others.
Free jazz is, however, a form exceedingly difficult to master, requiring a wealth of telepathic gifts, over-the-horizon aesthetics, and chops interfacing with perception and instantaneous strategizing. Many attempts have been made at charting the depths, not a hell of a lot have succeeded, unfortunately. One of its most commanding latterday figures is Kevin Kastning—and I'm not too certain he'd agree with my typifying his stunning work as 'free jazz', but, what the hell, I like to live dangerously—even though his catalogue exhibits a preternatural and almost pre-Raphaelite austerity in darkly luminous raiment, the underside, if you will, of a Renaissance…the first one or the one rushing towards us, take your pick.
The quartet, A Conversation, is nothing like that, based instead in the other end of the rainbow: raucous, audacious, upstarty, enfevered, persistent, half-mad…and brilliant. Centered in pianist Patrick Battstone and drummer / vibes player Richard Poole, we have another superlative example of what makes the style so damned compelling. The group's work is indeed nowhere akin to Kastning's save for a maddening querulousness in the brain of the listener as to how anyone can even think such things up.
A common misattribution is that free jazz has no structure. That's not true. It's just that the architectures are so attentuated and sideways approached that most ears and brains cannot readily identify what's being presented, quite as in abstract and surrealist paintings. Often, though, that's what makes the game so enticing: you know something of significance is present but can't quite figure out what it is and have to step back a few feet, yards, a mile, maybe 30, until perspective sorts itself out. Other times, the familiar and the alien meet so well that you must pause in awe and consider the implications. Then there are the moments you just don't care because whatever it is the artists are limning is so damned fascinating that manners and normalcy go out the window. All that and more is what The Last Taxi is about.
Glancing at the line-up alone—piano, bass clarinet, bass, and drums/vibes—guarantees incipient success if the players are half so adept as the aggregate inferred, and this quartet is neither half nor fully invested but twice both, hammering out breathtaking marvels of rarified plumage. Poole and Battstone aren't youngsters, and erudition weighs upon them so hoarily, so explicitly, that had this release come out on Japo, Ogun (if those imprints are even still alive), or ECM, I wouldn't have batted an eyelash. Neither fish nor fowl, rock nor prog, jazz nor neoclassical (though that last might come closest), this might best be called 'lunatic environmental mad ambience' or somesuch, virulently compelling and then some,
Battstone and his piano wander through celestial heavens one moment, then plunge into Looking Glass arbors and byways. Poole gives over to percussion clatter and emphases on the one hand and crystalline luminescent vibraphone tonalities on the other. Todd Brunel is a Gauginesque/Dalinian madman on the bass clarinet, and Chris Rathbun peals out the most wondrous lines, bowed and plucked, both matching Poole and Battstone every step of the way. In the most democratic of anarchies, everyone gets writing credit, as is deserved, but should a center pole be needed for reference, it'd be Poole and his piano. Many times, as the rest of the foursome heads for Orion or Styx, he raises a lighthouse and calls them back, whereupon the gorgeous choatic dance starts a new movement.
As with so much of this Jovian level of art, don't play Taxi too loudly, as the neighbors will likely summon those jolly fellows in the clean white coats along with their questionnaires, pharmaceuticals, and comfy Houdini smoking jackets, only too happy to transport you to a place of free rent and fellow space cases. At first glance, that may appear to be a good thing but, before too long, I'm telling you it's like one big Crawford, Texas, filled with only questionably human characters. Yep, sometimes it's well to hoard treasure just to yourself, and if you are indeed able to avoid the clutches of bespectacled lab rats, sacrifice a goat and light a pyre that A Conversation remains intact and turns up again next year. Things are getting too grimly sane around here lately, and I'm not so sure I can hold out if more of this magnificence isn't produced on a regular basis.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
Copyright 2014, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
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