For his eighth recording for the SteepleChase label, trumpeter Ballou chose to take on perhaps the greatest challenge of all—spontaneous collective improvisation—with two musicians he has performed and recorded with before: bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Randy Peterson. Ballou came to the studio armed with written compositions just in case, but as he writes in his liner notes, “during the fourth take of the session…we found ourselves.” That fourth take is the first cut on Insistence, which presents takes four through eleven as recorded. Ballou gave titles to seven of the eight tracks after the session, “Once Round” being the exception only as it related to the predetermined structure, not content, of the piece.
Listening to this lucid, well-conceived, flowing music, one comes away amazed that it is indeed freely improvised. “Restraint” features an attractive loping and bluesy melody line from Ballou, who even briefly quotes “It Ain’t Necessarily So” during his delightful solo. “MF,” with its tense, staccato theme, produces a strong, variegated Ballou solo, mixing vocalized bursts and low long-held notes. “Insistence” nearly swings in spots, and Formanek contributes a riveting fleet-fingered solo. “Upon Reflection” has a hymnlike melodic exposition by Ballou, as well as Peterson’s complementary cymbal-dominated support, and builds to a fulfilling climax and release.
Formanek’s arco solo and supporting lines elevate “Randy Starts,” as does Ballou’s almost-braying, declarative improv, which never loses melodic substance. A highlight of “Once Round” is Ballou’s re-entry with an almost bagpipe-like sound quality, before bursting out with fat held-notes and then delicate, prodding tones. “Silly Dance and Coda” presents a theme reminiscent of an Ornette Coleman composition, with Ballou making like Don Cherry in his overtones and eerie breathiness. Peterson’s cymbal and drum work during “Finale” are exceptional; his multifaceted approach (check out his marvelous bass-drum accents) is an integral element to the overall success of this piece and the entire CD. This is stimulating, very accessible free jazz by three superb musicians in perfect rapport.