The Signal Maker
Bassist-composer Mark Helias has led ensembles of various sizes: sextets, quintets, quartets. But in the pared-down trio of Open Loose, he’s refined his music to its essentials. And, as heard on their latest recording, The Signal Maker, this iteration also represents some of his most expressive and powerful music. With saxophonist Tony Malaby’s skilled melodic improvising and drummer Tom Rainey’s fluid rhythms, Helias can interweave improvisation and composition with his usual risk-taking ingenuity.
On the title track, for instance, percussive bass interjections ambush a duet between Malaby and Rainey in a surprise trio deployment. “Soliloquy” alternates between solo and trio passages in a beautifully proportioned mosaic. “Motoric” journeys from textural abstraction to swinging groove. The Signal Maker also contains some of Helias’ pithiest music — the lengthiest track running just more than six and a half minutes. Yet, each piece feels fully fleshed-out and complete, thanks to the leader’s kaleidoscopic arrangements and the trio’s interactions.
On “Largesse,” Malaby leaves plenty of space for Helias and Rainey to enter while he solos. The reedist’s coherent development of phrases builds a momentum that holds together even during the music’s most abstract moments. Drummer Rainey stays in constant motion. On “End Point,” his pulse is diffuse and abstract, but on “Fast Feast” and “Motoric,” he effortlessly falls into swinging tempo.
Helias’ own playing has never been more concise and refined. On “Largesse,” he limits himself to an occasional, perfectly placed note or short phrase. His solo on “Vocalise” is as dark, rich and strong as espresso. The bassist has led this trio longer than any of his other bands, and The Signal Maker explains the attraction. —Ed Hazell