Joe Morris / Ken Vandermark / Luther Gray – Rebus (CF 083)
Despite a reviewer’s best intentions suppressing them, heightened expectations have a habit of undermining the appraisal of certain albums. Regrettably, this newly released outing by the power trio of guitarist Joe Morris, reed player Ken Vandermark and drummer Luther Gray registers in that category for me. I have a great deal of respect for all three players, having thrilled to their previous work separately and in various combinations over the years. Morris’ meeting with DKV Trio released on Okka back in ’01 speaks to the strengths of Boston and Chicago improv sensibilities, and Gray has been a regular collaborator supplying sticks on some of his best albums. Along with these hits, have come the misfire of the last Morris/Vandermark project with pianist Hans Poppel, a case where the creative gunpowder was a bit wet and the fireworks dampened as a result This one errs closer to that one in that the music feels oddly stifled by the sharply delineated frameworks the players chose to work in.
Referencing the album title for a quick and dirty analogy: it’s as if the three are working from a sack containing too narrow a selection of puzzle pieces. Vandermark and Morris are both highly skilled rhythmic improvisers and it goes without saying that Gray shares similar abiding interest in this area. The stutter stop patterns of their fevered interplay generate a high amount of centripetal aural force that, calling upon a visual corollary, reminds me of an Olympic athlete running vigorously in place. Another binding agent is Vandermark’s decision to limit himself to tenor, the instrument in his armory where his harmonic encumbrances are often most manifest. Morris also often sounds tethered in this respect, his barrages of ricocheting single notes often bouncing within perplexingly confined corridors. His solo on “Rebus, Part 2” marks one of several refreshing exceptions where he opens things up. There’s a fair bit of flash to these pieces, with lots of notes and energy expended, but to my ears not a commensurate amount of heat. The disparity makes me mull again on the project title and the associative mystery as to why these musicians decided to hedge themselves in as they did.