The Intakt label of Switzerland has become an important repository for a genre that might be called “refined free jazz.” It is a productive niche within the jazz art form: edgy enough for thrills, structured enough for coherence. The opening track on Noise of Our Time, Sylvie Courvoisier’s “Checkpoint,” has the plunging, spattering tenor saxophone of Ken Vandermark and four-way contrapuntal turbulence. But its wild calls and responses also reveal intense collective listening. Within the cacophony, there is even something like a head-solos-head format.
It is striking how a small jazz ensemble is transformed when the bassist is omitted, especially when the drummer never keeps time. Tom Rainey scatters accents and splashes colors. The result is that the other three players operate in wide open space. The quartet here had never played together as a band until they made this record, in one four-hour session. Everyone but Rainey contributes three originals each. The tunes of Courvoisier are the wittiest. Vandermark’s are more dense and complex. Those of trumpeter Nate Wooley are wonderfully strange: “The Space Between the Teeth” shifts among drones, frantic eruptions and suspenseful long silences, while “Songs of Innocence” starts as formal and stately and becomes hair-raising clarinet/trumpet disharmony.
Noise of Our Time is about compositions leading to ensemble form conceived in the moment, rather than solos. Still, there are solos that pin you back in your chair, like Vandermark’s on “Tag.” Courvoisier keeps you on the edge of your seat because it feels like the piano cannot contain her. Her careening solos seem to overwhelm and overflow the keyboard and keep spilling.
This album’s capacity for surprise is immense. Nothing in the first eight tracks prepares for the measured grace and melodic serenity of Vandermark’s “Simple Cut.” But there it is at the end, meant to be.