Empty Cage Quartet – Stratostrophic (CF 103)
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary year of Ornette Coleman’s breaking onto the recording scene – albeit with pianist Walter Norris in tow on Something Else!!! (Contemporary, 1958). Though he wasn’t the first jazzman to proffer a music liberated from chordal constraints and make the pianoless quartet de rigeur, he was certainly the most notable for it, in a group with trumpeter Don Cherry and a number of bass/drum teams until his first exit from the scene in 1962. By now, however, it’s fair to say that the pianoless quartet can be relatively free from Ornette baggage. From the Ted Curson-Bill Barron unit of the mid-60s to Jeff Arnal’s Transit, there are innumerable ways to approach this format. Los Angeles’ Empty Cage Quartet (formerly known as MTKJ) is yet another variation on the instrumental theme.
A cooperative made up of four of Los Angeles’ busiest young improvisers, reedman Jason Mears, trumpeter Kris Tiner, drummer Paul Kikuchi and bassist Ivan Johnson, their earlier recordings on Nine Winds as MTKJ belied an influence, perhaps regional, of the John Carter-Bobby Bradford Quartet, one of the earliest aesthetically post-Ornette units but made up of two of Ornette’s contemporaries. With 2006’s double-disc release on pfMentum, Hello the Damage!, they were reintroduced as Empty Cage.
Perhaps the name change signified a moving away from earlier influences; “Again a Gun” finds Tiner and Mears stating the onomatopoeic theme over the sharp rat-a-tat of arco bass and percussion. Tiner’s trumpet is hot and brittle, and his phrasing combines fleet, boppish runs with fat smears and Don Ayler-esque multiphonics. Mears enters with his alto in tart keening cries as they collectively declaim – sonically, the horns might be most invigorating in tandem, their unison and collective lines a shattering affinity. They dart and jab in trio with Kikuchi’s towel-dampened chatter, as Johnson’s fingers pluck and shade an essence of forward motion. At other times, their head statements ache with pathos. A simple scalar theme characterizes the tense place-holder of “Feerdom is on the March,” their poise in the face of explosiveness palpable.
In fact, though three of the eleven tracks on Stratostrophic are over the ten minute mark, most of the cuts are rather short, almost programmatic statements of mood that wouldn’t sound out of place in a free-improvisation version of Gelber’s The Connection. Stitched together, rousing freebop and subtonal explorations would surely form an interesting suite. Though much can be made of Tiner and Mears’ brilliantly-paced lines (brassy bravura paired with bent, dervish-like clarinet work), Kikuchi straddles an interesting line between Philly Joe licks and Paul Lovens kitchen-sink, while Johnson’s concentrated propulsion is as much investigative as it is kinetic. Stratostrophic is a powerful statement from what’s clearly one of the West Coast’s foremost ensembles.