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Since 2010, the trio of drummer Tom Rainey, guitarist Mary Halvorson and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock — titans of the modern avant-garde — have released four albums of free improvisation. They don’t constitute a working band, per se, but their nine-year tenure is clearly evident in the music. The threesome exhibits a telepathy that only seasoned players with a long-standing familiarity (Rainey is married to Laubrock) can execute with a high degree of cohesion.
Their latest release, Combobulated, was recorded at Firehouse 12, a combination studio and small performance space in New Haven, Connecticut. Audience response has been edited out, imbuing the music with the best of both worlds: full, roomy studio sound and a kinetic energy that results from playing in front of an audience.
The album includes ample portions of pure noise-jazz, with the musicians engaging in a steel-cage match of cacophony. But they also subdivide into duo and solo sections that allow the music (and the listener) to breathe and delve into an array of textures, some of which could pass as sensitive. The 18-minute title track unpacks the whole bag, from the closing four-minute skronkfest — the players apparently battling with Uzis, chainsaws and feral cats — to Rainey’s lone rhythmic exploration of just his hi-hat. He works comfortably outside of a defined groove, intuitively guiding the music with an implied pulse. And, unlike other groups of this ilk, the trio occasionally finds its way into an actual beat. These are brief but welcome respites.
Laubrock’s tenor ranges from fearsome brawn to near-flute-like delicacy, and incorporates vocalizations and other sounds that are strange but musical. Halvorson draws from the broadest sonic pallet: discordant smears, chunky metallic riffs, wild sprays of notes, massive distorted chords, spacey Hendrix-isms and intoxicating warble/slide effects that sound as if she’s trying to strangle her whammy bar.
As described by Definition-of.com, to “combobulate” is “to put together in a somewhat mysterious manner; to bring something out of a state of confusion or disarray; to manufacture by unusual or novel means.” The album is well titled. — Eric Snider