Empty Cage Quartet – Stratostrophic (CF 103)
Stratostrophic, the sixth release by the Empty Cage Quartet (ECQ), finds the avant West Coasters full of ideas and limited by nothing. Their omnivorous approach gladly frustrates label taggers while rewarding informed listeners with advanced compositional and improvisational delights. Their continuing association pays off in an acquired looseness that revels in taking chances without losing the links that keep these sonic aerialists flying together. Inside/outside, silly/serious, ECQ’s creative central heat liquefies such abstractions into a bold shower of musical sparks.
The set begins with the three-footed “Again A Gun Again A Gun Again A Gun.” Drummer Paul Kikuchi and bassist Ivan Johnson create a stumbling rhythm for fiery Kris Tiner’s raw trumpet to blaze across. Johnson gets solo time, then saxophonist Jason Mears plays call and response with Tiner, creating structure while Johnson and Kikuchi explore. “Old Ladies” features a cubist head swinging off kilter and Tiner solos with answers and wails coming from Mears, both always finding their ways back to the unison lines. The minimalist sound picture “Power of the Great” brings out Mears’ clarinet, Tiner’s mute and Johnson’s bow. Kikuchi busily kicks off “We Are All Tomorrow’s Food” and keeps it percolating under the others’ laconic take on the theme. Mears catches up on clarinet, blasts past and then reins it in to repeat the theme. Tiner and Mears announce “Steps of the Ordinarily Unordinary” with a twisted toy army fanfare, sort of like Albert Ayler on Christmas morning, picked up by the rhythm section and marched around the tree. The haunting “Aurobindo” wafts like incense, Tiner’s flugelhorn enriching the sound. “Through the Doorways of Escape Come the Footsteps of Capture” slowly evolves into a formidable midtempo groove that Tiner splatters with trumpetese. Johnson and Kikuchi shift gears for Mears to come aboard rolling octaves and squawks around in his mouth, powerfully sprinting ahead.
With notes by no less a musical sage than Wadada Leo Smith, Stratostrophic checks in on one of jazz’s most crucial bands and finds them growing strong.