NACHOFF: Clairvoyant Jest. Imagination Reconstruction. Gravitas. Subliminal Circularity. Push-Pull Topography. Portrait in Sepia Tones / Quinsin Nachoff’s Ethereal Trio: Nachoff, t-sax; Mark Helias, bs; Dan Weiss, dm / Whirlwind Recordings (no number)
Here is a relatively new jazz trio playing in an older but still vital vein. Tenor saxist Quinsin Nachoff and his rhythm section are very much in the same line and genre as the old Charles Mingus Trios, playing music with fluid harmony that teases the listener as he or she travels through the set. It doesn’t hurt a bit that Mark Helias is one of the finest bassists I’ve heard since Mingus himself. His big, rich tone, outstanding ear and ability to lead or follow Nachoff in whatever explorations he pursues places him very much in line with the legendary bassist-composer.
The result is music that continually engages the mind as it pleases the senses. Without having seen any of the scores for these pieces, all of which are originals, I don’t know now much was written in advance, but it sounds as if not much beyond opening theme statements were worked out. Despite that, there is a remarkable flow and continuity to each and every piece, an inner logic that works as a composition regardless of how much is improvised, and that is the mark of very few and extremely talented musicians.
In fact, upon careful listening to this CD, I really wasn’t sure who was taking the lead and who was following. Helias’ compositional sense, not only in his solos but in the specific notes and intervals he chooses when following Nachoff, is so strong that these pieces could as well have been written by him as by Nachoff. Not that there’s anything inferior in Nachoff’s playing; on the contrary, he is on top of everything that Helias is laying down, two minds following one another in perfect synch. As a player, Nachoff generally sticks to a classic tenor sound, not too brash and only occasionally playing outside, yet this feeling of comfort in his tone belies the imagination he uses in improvising.
One of the most striking pieces on the album, Gravitas, is the most fluid in tempo and construction, at different times allowing the two soloists extended periods to stretch out. I should add that drummer Dan Weiss is a remarkable timekeeper, too, but that one’s attention is continually drawn to the sax and bass by virtue of their ability to play specific pitches. (Had Weiss wanted to participate melodically, he could have learned to play the “hot tympani” as Vic Berton did back in the 1920s and ‘30s, but almost no one followed Berton into that hellpit because the tympani are extremely difficult to keep in pitch, particularly when playing jazz solos on them.) Helias’ solo, combining a number of playing techniques, again steals the show on this track.
Subliminal Circularity is one of the furthest-out pieces on this set, with Weiss playing backbeats against the opposing meter of sax and bass. This one becomes more of a three-way conversation, at one point featuring all three musicians trying to circle around the beat without actually attacking it. More rhythmic irregularity, and interplay, is featured in Push-Pull Topology, in which Weiss leads on the drums while it is Helias who pushes back against his beat, disregarding it in favor of a nice walking pattern that sets up Nachoff perfectly.
The closing number, Portrait in Sepia Tones, is the most free in tempo (and a slow tempo at that) as well as the most fluid in tonality. Helias again leads things off on the bass, this time a cappella for quite some time, and even after Weiss enters the picture it is Helias who drives the piece, covering his instrument from top to bottom in a remarkable manner. Weiss’ fluid drum solo adds to the ambience, after which Nachoff enters the picture above the other two instruments. From this point on the interplay between them—sometimes solo, other times in duo—is simply astonishing. The two lead voices play, more or less, opposite each other, each creating different yet interweaving lines that are simple in terms of the number of notes played but complex in the way they interact. It’s also amazing, considering how polyphonic this music becomes, how well they continue to swing, although in the final section of the piece they arrive at a more regular, if funky, 4/4 beat for a time.
Nachoff’s album is due out on May 19, which at this point is only a few days away. I recommend that you order a copy as soon as it’s available.
—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley