Holiday for Strings

Violin wires bass whiz as jazz turns toward small gestures and skewed conglomerations

Recipe for non-generic, deliciously unsweetened, naturally surreal jazz: Add wiry violin, cakewalking bass, and bubbling drums to a country-bluesy composition called "Dust on a White Shirt," then churn ebulliently. The result comes off like a '30s black string-band porch dance simultaneously pushed into we-sing-the-body-acoustic expansiveness and stripped to bare-bones intimacy. Down-Home and Out- There, folk forms and urbane abstractions, all get folded into a surprisingly straightforward common language, one that unobtrusively dissolves the distance between eras and wavelengths. Bass whiz William Parker calls this unit his Violin Trio, and their Scrapbook sounds like a gutbucket extension of the central nervous system. A crisscross microcosm of plangent, impulse-relaying grids, it's the kind of omnidirectional work that keeps surprising you with its complicated simplicity, playful gravitas, and awe-inspiring lack of self-importance.

"Holiday for Flowers" has a modesty that is especially becoming: Billy Bang's masterful violin saws out a poignant, tipsy melody, and Parker answers with the plucked notes of a man waltzing on eggshells. Steadily eluding categorization, veterans Bang, Parker, and wily drummer Hamid Drake come within shouting (or whispering) distance of jazz, classical, and folk traditions without getting bogged down in reference points and the kind of semi-conscientious formalism that nowadays seems to run through everyone from Ken Vandermark to the White Stripes. "Singing Spirits" could be descended from Julius Hemphill's "The Hard Blues"—or, just as plausibly, from the Kronos Quartet's nifty arrangement of Television's "Marquee Moon." Yet the sources couldn't be more irrelevant: What counts on Scrapbook is the unmediated soulfulness and fierce care, not the slim residual traces of Jimmy Garrison-esque basslines, Revolutionary Ensemble dynamicism (Leroy Jenkins's nearly forgotten '70s violin-bass-drums experiment), and old-fashioned Ornette-on-fiddle interludes.

"Sunday Morning Church" covers the most ground, spanning Bang's restrained virtuosity and the unadorned Parker solo. Scrapbook is full of aural history—the quaver of a bottleneck slide sans guitar and dappled flecks of cotton-field dust on jukebox 78s—and personal idiosyncrasy, so while it doesn't break any big, overt new ground, it still feels like a pretty indelible little landmark. It's not pointing to some new jazz movement, but perhaps indicating a newly focused tendency toward small, handcrafting gestures and skewed musical conglomerations, centered around but not confined to Parker and his associates.

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Eloping With the Sun, which came out earlier this year, is a way more solipsistic version of the same aesthetic: Parker playing the oud-like African zintir along with longtime comrade Joe Morris on banjo and banjouke and the always dependable Drake on frame drum. "Stepdance" has a nice borderline tunefulness, but Eloping's lengthy overall effect suggests ethnographic Peace Corps variants on a Captain Beefheart homily: The dust blows forward an' the dust blows back.

Morris's Age of Everything anti-power-trio manages to make opaque austerity really swing—"Way In" undulates with a hypnotic insistence that rises to Scrapbook's heights. Also part of the mini-trend are drummer Susie Ibarra's lovely Radiance(featuring the great Charles Burnham taking the bowing honors) and Songbird Suite—sounds that seem to float above convention with an are-you-out-of-body-experienced rapture.

But out of all these recent string-driven things, my favorite is a solo project from Derek Bailey, the éminence grise of free-improv guitar. Ballads are a classic counterintuitive move, putting the racket king's splayed inversions at the service of terse, sonorous, oh-so-delicately-warped caressings of staples such as "What's New" and "You Go to My Head," along with Hoagy Carmichael's "Rockin' Chair" and "Georgia on My Mind." This is sentimentality transfigured into breathtakingly direct ruminations, a wedding of melody and dissonance worthy of Thelonious Himself or a Django from another planet. If Bailey hooked up with Parker and Billy Bang, they could start a 21st-century Hot Club: unfettered beauty and crazy rhythm, a ganglionic tangle of strings wired for euphoria/melancholia.

 
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