So acculturated are jazz fans to the piano-bass-drums trio timbre that with each new track on A Humdrum Star, one expects improvisations to break out at any moment. As on GoGo Penguin’s 2016 Blue Note debut, Man Made Object, they do not come. There’s not much else to distinguish the two albums, either—and precious little to distinguish the songs on this one.
Oh, sure, Rob Turner’s drum pattern on “Raven” is more complex than the one on “Bardo.” Yes, bassist Nick Blacka dominates “Strim,” whereas pianist Chris Illingworth commandeers most tracks. But by and large, each one comprises a repeated pattern that goes on repeating until the band hits upon the next one. Illingworth plays melodic lines over these vamps that are ultimately as dependent on repetition as the vamps are. He and Blacka also play through-composed lines here and there that might be mistaken for improvisations—if they didn’t reveal themselves to be melodic variations whose harmonies and pacing have no variation at all. It’s like listening to a music box, or a film cue, on a loop.
Admittedly, there is considerable technical mastery here, and strong, pretty timbres from all involved. There is also a certain emotional power to these musical figures, and it remains in play even through the verbatim repetitions. It puts one in mind of brainlessly popping candies for the sugar high, or of lab rats pressing a button to receive doses of narcotics; logic and direction disappear in the rush for the rush. There is no spontaneity, no sense of imagination in A Humdrum Star: just some prefabricated confections that push the right buttons without a clear endgame.