An almost inevitable part of the process of collective improvisation is that period of motif-hatching uncertainty when the musicians are trying to sort out when they are trailblazing and when they are acknowledging common ground. Some free-jazz buffs want to hear the entire organic creative process while others would just as soon skip to the phrase when the more intentional synergy begins in earnest.
The density of innovation that takes place among the Ingebrigt Håker Flaten New York Quartet on Now Is seems to mark the album as a successful example of when collective improvisation gives real meaning to one of its other monikers, spontaneous composition. “Seems” because we’re not sure what, and how much, of the material was edited out. But only one of the eight songs on the disc was pre-composed (“As If ”), and the other seven add up to a mere 32:24 of music. Despite that brevity, the quality and quantity of inventive ensemble interplay should leave no one feeling cheated. Credit the Norwegian bassist Flaten for inspired ingenuity in assembling this band. It’s difficult to imagine a more valuable member of a drummer-less, piano-less quartet playing free than guitarist Joe Morris, who not only has extensive experience with instant composing but used to devote himself to the bass as well. He also possesses a spindly tone and agile prance to his phrases that enables him to simultaneously anchor the rhythm and foster a lead voice in the proceedings. His duo passages with Flaten are like multidimensional hopscotch and comprise many of the reliable highlights here.
Speaking of duos, Flaten’s other master stroke of assembly was building the quartet from two working duos—his pairing with saxophonist Joe McPhee that has resulted in two previous discs (including Brooklyn DNA, a forerunner of sorts to Now Is), and the duo of Morris and trumpeter Nate Wooley, who released Tooth and Nail on Clean Feed in 2010. This internal familiarity reduces the chaff in the two-, three- and four-part exchanges that dovetail in and out of any improvised work. McPhee, the elder statesman of the quartet, is the most likely to melt the furniture, although he and Wooley also engage in some effectively breathy mouthpiece work on “Knicks.”
In any case, the process, instrumentation and musical substance of Now Is are all distinctive, making it one of the more unique and enlightening discs released last year.