The members of this impressive lineup — pianist Matthew Shipp, saxophonist Allen Lowe, drummer Gerald Cleaver and bassist Kevin Ray — initially started playing together in 2017. They’ve since given themselves a new name for their debut recording. And while the bandmates enjoy a high degree of free-improv street cred, East Axis’ interplay offers plenty of internal cohesion, as well.
“A Side” begins with a sense of hesitancy, as if the musicians were feeling each other out. It’s only a matter of time, however, before Shipp establishes a rolling motif that’s gradually picked up on by Ray, and which spurs Cleaver on to more assertive patterns. All the while, Lowe issues gruff yet melodic bursts. “Oh Hell I Forgot,” on the other hand, wastes no time establishing its rollicking mood. Shipp races up and down the keyboard, and the rest of the quartet seems determined to keep pace with its own fleet attack. Nonetheless, Ray’s high-speed walking bass lines help establish a solid foundation, and Lowe interjects a few lyrical passages within his otherwise rapid-fire phrases. You can hear Shipp and Lowe pick up on each other’s phrases throughout, just one instance of the deep listening engaged in by these masters.
“Social Distance” takes an aptly subdued tone. Shipp’s delicate phrases float atop Ray’s sinuous bass lines, while Lowe’s searching melodicism drives home the melancholic air. The blues-drenched title track features Shipp in full-on Monk mode; the space between his deliberate, off-center phrases sets a playful tone that Lowe willingly follows. It’s the piece with the most consistent through-line.
All that would be sufficient to recommend the album, but Cool With That
’s closer, the 28-and-a-half-minute tour de force “One,” truly showcases the group in all its glory. If the running time seems indulgent, the subtle shifts in tempo, mood and texture command listeners’ attention for the entire track. Like the album as a whole, it takes you on a journey highlighted by fascinating detours. — John Frederick Moore
Featured photo by Martin Philips.