The CODE Quartet Explores Their Genealogy

CODE cover

FRENCH: Tipsy. Genealogy. Beach Community. VEDADY: Watching it All Slip Away. Requiem. TRADITIONAL: O Sacred Head, Now Wounded. JENSEN: Wind Up. Day Moon / CODE Quartet: Lex French, tpt; Christine Jensen, a-sax; Adrian Vedady, bs; Jim Doxas, dm / Justin Time Records JTR 8622-2

The CODE Quartet is a Montreal-based group founded four years ago by saxophonist Christine Jensen based on the original Ornette Coleman Quartet (Coleman on alto and occasionally tenor sax, Don Cherry on trumpet, Charlie Haden on bass and Billy Higgins, later Ed Blackwell, on drums) to explore a similar sort of collective free jazz. Curiously, this makes the second such CD I’ve had submitted to me for review, the first being Miguel Zénon’s outstanding album, The Law Years.

Interestingly, the first track on this disc, trumpeter Lex French’s Tipsy, sounds almost nothing like an Ornette tune but more like the Blue Note late-‘50s funk-jazz style. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, just saying that it’s not an Ornette Coleman kind of tune. I was impressed by Jensen’s deep, rich sound, almost Coltrane-like in its tubular, non-vibrato purity, Her improvisations put me in mind of a few different players of the early ‘60s, Sonny Rollins among them, but not Coleman. Similarly, trumpeter French is a really interesting improviser, but his sound and style remind me more of Clarence “Gene” Shaw, who played on Charles Mingus’ Tijuana Moods album, than of Don Cherry.

Regardless of their direct or indirect influences, however, this is a loose band that actually swings. That is not something to be taken for granted nowadays. Modern jazz does a lot that the older forms didn’t, but swinging is not usually one of them. For whatever reason, many jazz musicians nowadays have forsaken swing almost completely, but here is a band that actually plays it, and I loved hearing it after so many years.

The second number on this disc, Adrian Vedady’s Watching it All Slip Away, is an example of what I mean. It’s interesting jazz; the beat is irregular and a bit elusive; the solos are adventurous and interesting; but it doesn’t swing. Interestingly, this piece is dominated by the playing of French and Vedady; leader Jensen just pops in ti bolster the ensemble.

The title track is very much in the Ornette Coleman style; it, too swings (early Coleman always swung) and Jensen switches to alto, which she plays with a bit more of an edge to her tone than Coleman did. The rhythm section doubles the tempo behind French’s solo and really cooks, but although Vedady is an excellent bassist he doesn’t quite have the ability to follow the harmonic dips and dives of the two horns the way Charlie Haden did…but then again, what Haden did was nearly miraculous and, to my mind. never duplicated by any of Coleman’s later bassists (not even the brilliant Jamaladeen Tecuma). Yet Vedady’s solo is a real gem, given at a point when the quartet eases up on the tempo and lets him swing.

To say that I was somewhat amazed by their choice of an old Protestant hymn, O Sacred Head, Now Wounded for this album would be an understatement. Perhaps they chose it simply to be tongue-in-cheek; neither the melodic line nor the very basic harmony is much conducive to jazz. When the solos come, they “play around” with the harmony, trying to juice it up a little. It works, but—it was still a bizarre choice. Jensen’s solo is very free-form, particularly in the looseness of rhythm and extension of meter.

Wind Up is an extremely complex piece, rhythmically, set to a simple but harmonically-shifting lick, and here the quartet shows their mettle in dealing with such complexity with tight yet individualistic playing. If I had to choose one track that shows off the CODE Quartet’s abilities, this would be it. French manages to incorporate the dicey harmonies into an absolutely brilliant solo and Jensen takes the opposite approach, playing laid-back and with more legato in her phrases. Bass and drums stay busy. Towards the end, trumpet and sax briefly cross paths in a brilliant moment of cross-improvisation.

Requiem is taken at a slow 4/4 with a slight “hump” in the beat (usually at the end of each bar) to help push it along. After trumpet and sax play the theme statement, Vedady steps forward for another fascinating solo. Later on, French practically ties himself up in knots but, like Houdini, manages to get out of it unscathed while Jensen is cool and mellow, picking and choosing her notes much like Paul Desmond did.

Day Moon kicks the group into high gear again; after the brisk trumpet-sax intro, Jensen states the theme sensuously, then French joins her again for a few bars, and back and forth. The rhythm section churns in a sort of circular 6/8 alternating with 4 as Jensen plays another cool solo, followed by French who simply plays all over his horn—up, down, sideways, backwards, whatever strikes his fancy. This track also features a rare drum solo by Doxas.

The finale, Beach Community, is a sort of Caribbean-beat piece along the lines of Sonny Rollins’ St. Thomas, and Jensen does include a few Rollins references in her excellent solo. French picks up on the last new notes of her solo to start his own, taking it into a little bit of Clifford Brown territory before playing a series of eighth note triplets, then diving and swooping around the horn. Another outstanding solo for this talented brassman. Then a half-chorus drum solo before the rideout.

This is an interesting and eclectic first album for the CODE Quartet, well worth exploring.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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