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January/February 2002

Spring Heel Jack
Blue Series Continuum: Masses

British drum 'n' bass duo Spring Heel Jack's newest project, recorded with a score of avant-garde jazz musicians, is a milestone album-though one not always successful.

Part of Thirsty Ear's "Blue Series," curated by pianist Matthew Shipp, the album features the improvisational skills of Shipp, saxophonist Tim Berne, bassist William Parker, violinist Mat Maneri and free-blowing saxophonist Evan Parker, among others. The musicians recorded their parts in New York and then shipped the tapes to England, where SHJ's John Coxon and Ashley Wales integrated the performances into their own sound, with the help of some additional studio musicians.

The hardest part of such a transatlantic, pieced-together, cross-genre hybrid is getting all of the musicians' contributions (Spring Heel Jack's included) to blend cohesively. When it does, Masses is an unparalleled triumph. When Coxon and Wales' eerie electronic soundscapes augment subtle statements from Shipp and Parker on the opening tracks, "Chorale" and "Chiaroscuro," it's so fresh and original that it sounds like a new genre being generated on the spot. But over the rest of the album, SHJ isn't always able to integrate the players' improvisations into its rhythms and textures well enough to prevent predictable, self-indulgent free jazz from tipping the delicate balance.

Masses is only partially successful, but its best moments herald a new sound in jazz.

Originally published in January/February 2002
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