Lisa Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch – What Is Known (CF192)
One could count on one hand the number of high-profile female bassists currently working in jazz and improvised music; Joëlle Léandre and Esperanza Spaulding come to mind, but very few others. Adding Lisa Mezzacappa to the short list in the near future is a good bet; the Bay Area bassist’s CV is as varied as her talents are impressive. A former student of Henry Threadgill and Myra Melford, Mezzacappa has worked with Meredith Monk and the Sun Ra Arkestra in addition to leading and co-leading a number of bands, including the chamber-esque electro-acoustic quintet Nightshade, metal jazz band Go-Go Fightmaster and the film noir trio Citta di Vitti. What Is Known is the debut recording of Bait & Switch, a reconfiguration of Go-Go Fightmaster that plays what Mezzacappa affectionately terms garage jazz.
Basing her thorny compositions on transcriptions of fragments culled from the improvisations of such seventies-era avant-garde heavyweights as Air, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra, Mezzacappa’s Bait & Switch delivers a raw, unfettered dose of primal expressionism that also works as sophisticated modern jazz. The album’s only covers are a beautifully understated bass solo interpretation of Air drummer Steve McCall’s “I’ll Be Right Here Waiting” and a riotous tear through Captain Beefheart’s “Lick My Decals Off, Baby,” with Mezzacappa’s labyrinthine originals drawing inspiration from similarly divergent sources.
Throughout these convoluted episodes, John Finkbeiner’s grimy electric guitar salvos, Aaron Bennett’s woolly tenor saxophone eruptions and Vijay Anderson’s percussive maelstroms drive the music with a visceral blend of focus and frenzy. Eschewing conventional forms in favor of oblique narratives, Mezzacappa’s episodic tunes follow their own twisted logic, balancing the spectral impressionism of “The Cause & Effect of Emotion & Distance” with the withering volume of the title track. Encapsulating an array of expressive instrumental sonorities, the quartet’s cogent interplay is a compelling feature of this dynamic session, exemplified by the drummer-less trio interlude of “Richard’s House of Blues” and a pair of pithy duets on “Ponzi” – first between Anderson and Mezzacappa, followed by Bennett and Finkbeiner. The quartet’s headlong approach towards collective and individual improvisation is balanced by their contrapuntal precision during pre-written sections, providing dramatic contrast and expansive detail to Mezzacappa’s vibrant compositions.
Regularly overshadowed by the East Coast, the West Coast jazz scene has been responsible for fostering the careers of a number of key avant-garde innovators over the decades, from Bobby Bradford, John Carter and Horace Tapscott in the ‘60s to present-day luminaries like Nels Cline and Vinny Golia. An impressive debut, What Is Known embraces this lineage, establishing a foothold for Mezzacappa in this revered continuum; expect to hear more from her in the future.