Let me first preface this review by saying that whenever I hear the word ‘free jazz’ I always cringe. Not that I have anything against free jazz per se – there are some groups that do it extremely well thinking back to Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry and Steve Lacy to more recent excursions by Dave Douglas, Greg Osby and David Binney. And then there are other groups that, well, I would be hard pressed to classify as music.
The trick is trying to strike the right balance between some sort of structure and a total free-for-all. Saxophonist Peter Epstein, and leader of Idée Fixe, manages to do just that on Abstract Realism, the ensemble’s debut recording.
As the title of opening track suggests, “Painfully Simple” introduces a whole note melody supported by a two-note bass ostinato and sparse rhythm section colorations. “Face of the Whale” begins with another bass ostinato and straight eighth drum groove. The effortless groove established by Sam Minaie and Matt May Hall belies the complex three-bar phrase and odd metered time signature. Also of note is Epstein’s solo, which is a masterclass in how to build a dramatic arc.
Other highlights include the two-in-one “Dark to Light,” which begins with a raunchy funk-inspired section before segueing into a major key vamp; and the atmospheric title track which features the ethereal guitar colorations of Andy Barbera à la Bill Frisell
While for the most part the album balances free playing with some formal structure, at certain points the group does fall into the ‘free jazz trap’ of all-out chaos and generic noise. Take for example “Air 1,” “Air 2,” and the beginning of “Four 2”.
Given the group’s cohesion and overall structure of the compositions, it’s hard to believe the claim on the one-sheet that the band created “fully realized, spontaneously-composed music with neither discussion or forethought” (with the possible exception of the three examples cited above). However, this is more of a question of semantics as good music transcends cursory labels. Duke Ellington said it best: “There are two kinds of music: good and bad.” With that in mind, it’s a safe bet to place Abstract Realism among the former.