By Ken Waxman
Having relocated to Amsterdam in 2007, Wyoming raised saxophonist John Dikeman has become an established part of that scene, playing with bands such as Cactus Truck and with members of the Ex. Like a translator who retains fluency in several languages, the saxophonist maintains intensity in his playing in all setting, but has developed what could be termed parallel European and American strategies. Since both CDs here bubble with the same kind of percolating excitement, each scenario is equally valid.
Although the rhythm section is 100 per cent Norwegian – bassist Jon Rune Strøm and drummer Tollef Østvang – the four tracks which make up Skullduggery reference the American New Thing concept established in the 1960s and early 1970s. It helps that Dikeman’s front-line partners is American Joe McPhee, playing pocket trumpet and alto saxophone, who has been part of this Free Jazz variant since that epoch. Meanwhile on Obscure Fluctuations, it’s British drummer Steve Noble and Belgian guitarist Dirk Serries, with experience in Rock, ambient and ethnic sounds, who interact with Dikeman on two lengthy improvisations.
Unlike the dabs and squirts of sonic color from the equivalent of four distinct paint brushes that blend to make Skullduggery into a set of hard-edged abstract portraits, Obscure Fluctuations is more like post-war German constructions. Just like animal hides, jagged wires and expanses of found objects like rocks and cinders made up those Teutonic landscapes, so too do Dikeman, Noble and Serries reveal a sonic panorama that that is brutalist and asymmetrical. Serries especially who flirts with enfolding ambient, metal and punk-like string patterning within his solos, strays the furthest from Jazz-like pulses. Buzzing reverb and expressive wide-area flanges characterize his work, with Noble’s percussion patterns ranging from low-key swizzles to high-energy splatters. The drummer also keeps the improvisations as unbalanced as a circus elephant resting on an inflated beach ball. Like ganglia hanging inside an inflamed throat, Dikeman’s processes turns inflamed to flaming, spreading snorts, honks, slurs, smears among guitar picking and cymbal slaps. Despite nearly opaque menace hanging over the narrative, like black clouds gathering over the castle in a filmed medieval drama, connective threads are never lost.
Improvisation doesn’t mean inchoate however. By the penultimate section of the concluding “The Heart Stripes Bare”, percussion rolls and plops plus oscillating guitar amp static are challenged enough by successive waves of reed glossolalia to be shaped into a climatic conclusion. Serries’ folk-style strumming and Noble’s graceful skin pressure allows Dikeman enough time to catch his breath. Atomized melodies briefly forced from a choked throat, signal the interactive and continuous strength of the group and Dikeman’s unshakable vigor.
He needs that vigor to keep up with McPhee, who despite being four decades older than the other saxophonist invests each track with enough dynamics that when all four are operating full tilt, it’s as if alternate Jazz has remained unsullied since 1967. Creating a stop-time ending to the opening “Yeah, and?” the symbolic smoke rising could be fanned from Albert Ayler matching Charles Tyler’s output. If McPhee’s high-pitched snarks on alto saxophone are enough to torque Dikeman’s to full body tenor playing, then his pocket trumpet grace notes link the others to a variant of Swing and Bop.
With sprawling call-and-response harmonies thickening the program like molasses and honey on well-shaped pancakes on the title tune and “Wanted”, the quartet work is most scrumptious. Backed by double stopping from the bassist and bomb-dropping from Østvang, Dikeman’s usual strategy of outputting hernia-straining blows is sweetened by McPhee’s emotional blowing, that turns bluster into thematic concordance. More open, “Wanted” finds McPhee’s lip-flutters and mouth kisses orotund and Dikeman’s open-horn puffs closer to the thematic bone. Putting aside timbral evisceration and thematic decorations, cohesive tones from both horns lead to a conclusion that is bare bones, basic and true to the CD’s message.