By Derek Taylor
In a creative field crowded with commercially-unsung talent, bassist John Lindberg still stands out. Tapped early in his career for coveted bass chair posts with Jimmy Lyons and Anthony Braxton, Lindberg’s virtuosity was evident from the impetus of his professional life. His projects as a leader since have been steady, if not always well-publicized, and adept at tracing the frontiers of the jazz idiom and beyond. That steadfast work ethic in the face of relative societal ambivalence informs not only his long career, but more specifically the ideation behind Born in an Urban Ruin, an album that seeks to pay tribute in snapshot musical terms to largely neglected places and people associated with Rust Belt America, the a region also associated with the blue collar abbreviation that comprises the ensemble’s name.
A resident of Michigan for much of his life, Lindberg is familiar with the cultural milieu under scrutiny. Clarinetist Wendell Harrison hails from Detroit, the American city currently most prominent in the national consciousness when it comes to extended effects of blight and decay on sustainable urban communities. His work for the Tribe and Rebirth labels in earlier decades and a long resume as a session man on R&B and Soul sessions still stands the test of time. Percussionist Kevin Norton is from Brooklyn where such entropic agents, while better held in check, have also exacted a toll. Lindberg funnels these concepts into a program of six pieces, one of which unfolds as a three-part suite written in honor of deceased trumpeter Roy Campbell and another, “Swooping Deep”, rendered in separate solo clarinet, bass and full trio versions.
Harrison divides his contributions between b-flat and bass clarinets with more attention paid the former while Norton favors vibraphone instead of standard drum kit. Lindberg coaxes a spectrum of tones, textures and patterns from his strings that border on the non pareil. “Vermont Roadside Family” paints in aural pigments of ruddy arco bass, bleating bass clarinet and watercolor vibes the picture of a chance encounter with the titular nuclear unit selling their wares to infrequent passerby. “The Left Wrist” documents in associative sound a recurring injury sustained by the aforementioned Campbell who refused to let it curtail his creative output. Norton is particularly revelatory on the second part, generating cascades of clusters that encircle Harrison’s dry, folkish streaks and spirals and contrast with the composer’s rampant unaccompanied bass aggression later in the piece.
“The Excavation” and “Devastation of Vegetation” embody related themes of rustic conquest by the concerted and callused hands of workers and the dark side of such industry when channeled instead toward unchecked exploitation of nature. Lindberg on his instrument is once again the personification of a tall and many-branched tree, sturdy, but supple and a centering harmonic trunk for the encircling flights of his colleagues. Harrison and Norton respond in kind using Lindberg’s lines for launching points of their own and the results reflect an abiding chamber music delicacy. Borne on a back of another powerful Lindberg line, the title piece joins sporadic tonal dissonance with underlying momentum and reveals bass clarinet and bass as garrulous co-conspirators with vibes along as their more inquisitive and ruminative accomplice.