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Inspired by Mingus, bassist James Singleton ventures out to the edge.
Along with his ongoing work in Astral Project, the modern jazz quartet that has been a New Orleans institution for more than 40 years, veteran bassist-composer James Singleton has racked up innumerable credits with Crescent City icons such as James Booker, Johnny Adams, Alvin “Red” Tyler and Ellis Marsalis, as well as backing tons of famous artists who have come through town to play Snug Harbor. The highly sought-after bassist has also been involved in several projects where he has flexed his composer’s muscles, including 3Now4, a quartet co-led by pedal steel guitar ace Dave Easley; Nolatet, with keyboardist Brian Haas, vibraphonist-percussionist Mike Dillon and drummer Johnny Vidacovich; his String Quartets project; and various trios and duos with New Orleans musical renegades. But on his latest recording as a leader, Malabar, Singleton pushes the envelope beyond the Astral Project zone on tunes that straddle free jazz and a more strictly composed approach.Pieces like the title track or the grooving “Monster Clause,” both featuring Singleton’s unprecedented use of distortion pedal on his upright bass, carry a distinct Eric Dolphy-esque Out to Lunch quality, courtesy of Mike Dillon’s vibes, while the exploratory rubato excursion “Where Where Is” may conjure up memories of Sun Ra’s Arkestra. The frantic “Black Sheep Squared” and “Bluebelly” and the mournful ode “Lento” all incorporate tightly executed motifs blended with unabashed free-blowing, while the suite-like “So Long Tall Rex,” which travels from opening bass solo to dark, spacious requiem to raucous, trad jazz-inspired collective improv, echoes the aesthetic of one of Singleton’s greatest role models, the irascible bassist-composer-bandleader Charles Mingus. “I stole the title for that one from Mingus,” says the Chicago native and longtime New Orleans resident. “He had a tune called ‘So Long Eric,’ which he wrote when he learned that Dolphy was leaving his band. And I wrote this one when I found out that my tenor sax and bass clarinet player, Rex Gregory, was leaving my band to move to Seattle. We didn’t think we’d ever play with him again. Luckily, he ended up moving back to New Orleans so it’s great now. But at the time we were recording this album, we knew he was leaving and it was a really big deal.”Singleton adds that he especially admires Mingus’ extended, shape-shifting pieces that alternate tempo and time signature while also opening up into freer sections. “That whole approach to composition greatly influenced me and that’s what I want my music to do. I get the guys to play what I’ve written but I’m also open to them taking it somewhere else. That’s something I started getting into on this project — writing themes that are strong enough to stand up in different musical contexts and then having the players interpret that material. Everybody on that record is a pretty accomplished composer, player and bandleader; they know that I want it to go somewhere else, and they make that happen.”In addition to vibraphonist Dillon, Singleton is joined on Malabar by drummer and electronics savant Justin Peake, saxophonists Rex Gregory and Brad Walker, and guitarist Jonathan Freilich, who brings a risk-taking James Blood Ulmer-ish quality to pieces like “Monster Clause” and “Black Sheep Squared.” “I think of Jonathan as the Fool in King Lear,” Singleton says. “It’s so strange because what he plays is definitely guitar vocabulary, but the way he puts it across is so unpredictable and unique. I love the way he totally, willfully fucks up the melody of ‘Black Sheep Squared.’ So all these guys are actually changing the written materials to my liking. It used to annoy me when musicians would do that to my compositions. I was like, ‘No, man! Play the ink and then you can do what you want.’ But working with guys like Skerik and Mike Dillon kind of made me realize, ‘No, let them change everything if they want. It’s almost more interesting that way.’” Recorded before a small live studio audience, Malabar has been released on vinyl (a first for Singleton) and CD by the New Orleans-based Sinking City Records. — Bill Milkowski https://open.spotify.com/album/672HFUhA3cz79gb5KHyqli?si=BDk-JKOURNurv0kO41Bxvg
Featured photo by Zach Smith.