By Tom Burris
There is a solemn beauty to Levin’s approach to composition. It stands in stark opposition to his ensemble playing, which is generally playful and light. Between the two lies something like artistic maturity, I think: an openness that becomes more prominent with the passage of time. Levin’s quartet has always been an interesting chamber-esque group that walks the line between improvisation and composition; but on Friction this balancing act reaches absolute fruition. To put it mildly, I think longtime listeners will be thrilled with this recording. The uninitiated should begin here.
The centerpiece of the album is a track called “Chol,” which opens with a repeated bass note played by Torbjorn Zetterberg. Levin introduces a bluesy middle-eastern style melody over the top, sounding a bit like an homage to Hamza El-Din. Enter trumpet daredevil Nate Wooley as the phrases repeat, playing sweet harmonic counterpoint on what sounds more like a thin oboe than a trumpet. (What the hell is he doing now?) The third time Levin’s melody is repeated Wooley’s sound opens up to display a more conventional timbre. Matt Moran accompanies the trio by bowing the vibes (I’m guessing), creating a pillow of shimmering smeary tones on which the melodic structure rests. With the entire quartet now in the game, the piece becomes more intense. As Wooley rises above the band, Levin reshapes the lone minor chord this has been built upon. He stretches for blue notes and – at least once – goes in for a long major version of the chord. The swirling and spinning and levitating that has been taking place all around this simple structure eventually winds down, concluding with the original melody repeated slowly one last time. The only other aural artist I can think of who has done so much (musically) with so little (structurally) is J. Dilla. Although the clock says “Chol” goes on for 10.5 minutes, it feels more like three.
Also included are a pair of duets: “Terrarium I,” between Moran and Wooley – and “Terrarium II,” between Moran and Zetterberg. Both tracks feel improvised but sound composed, especially as they arrive at perfect logical conclusions. “Particles” features short acoustic spurts that sound like a Stockhausen tape composition. An excellent mood piece called “Springtime” begins with a one-note drone from everyone in the band that fades in and out. The note changes. Again, again. Levin bows careful harmonics while Wooley rides his wah-wah. The sky rumbles and shakes, threatening but holding back. If any rain comes it will be gentle.
“Lyrical” serves as a companion piece to “Chol,” opening with Levin’s gorgeous, solemn bowing before the others join in for a resolution of the melody. Another passage opens, sounding like a beautiful European folk song. Wooley then solos over drawn-out bass and vibe chords in free meter before the melodic conclusion is played in unison with Levin. It is this perfect balance between structure and chaos, darkness and lightness, improvisation and composition, that makes this recording such a rewarding listen. There is frequently an atmosphere of friction; but it is always resolved. If any rain comes it will be gentle.