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You could call Dave Sewelson’s new Music for a Free World old-school avant-garde. That is, unlike the more detailed strategies of player-composers such as Henry Threadgill, Vijay Iyer and Mary Halvorson, the baritone saxophonist and his cohorts just rear back and blow. Indeed, the music here is described as “completely improvised.”
Working without a chording instrument, Sewelson’s band — with trombonist Steve Swell, bassist William Parker and drummer Marvin “Bugalu” Smith — is free even from the minimal constraints of harmony. But “free” doesn’t mean no limitations; with no written charts or agreed-upon form, the musicians are entirely dependent on each other to create and sustain musical interest, which this crew does with stirring aplomb.
What becomes clear following the opening dissonant blast of “Memories,” the first of three spontaneous tracks that make up this 59-minute set, is the intense listening among the players. Within moments, Sewelson and Swell are off on a heady overlapping dialogue. Marked by a mix of broad gestures and questing asides, its declamation and sly humor recall Archie Shepp’s jousting with Roswell Rudd, utilizing a loose call-and-response as ancient as the African-American tradition itself. There’s elegance, too, in an elastic “walking” solo from Parker and in Smith’s delicately dotted-rhythm cymbal.
It doesn’t hurt that three of these guys have been fellow travelers on the downtown New York scene for decades, Sewelson and Swell as members of Parker’s Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra, and Smith as a veteran of Shepp’s and Sun Ra’s bands.
All three tracks offer abundant rewards: Sewelson’s mastery of the full range of the big horn, from his glorious bottom register to his tart altissimo (check his a cappella intro to “Reflections”); the band’s spontaneous arrival at common ground in “Dreams”; Parker’s astute rhythmic and harmonic responses; and Smith’s mix of textures and patterns. In this band’s world, free gestures can be the most disciplined and eloquent of all.— Jon Garelick
Featured photo by Don Mount.