Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Jazz in the Abstract: Strange Attractors by Ugly Beauties

The members of Ugly Beauties: Marilyn Lerner, Matt Brubeck and Nick Fraser. (Photo: Karrie North)

Back in the late 1940s, it wasn’t unusual to hear jazz at the Long Island house of American painter Jackson Pollock, who was inspired by the freedom and improvisational qualities of the music of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. In a way, it was his soundtrack to the changing face of post-war America. While he didn’t listen to music while he worked, his wife Lee Krasner said. in 1967, that he listened to jazz in marathon sessions in between projects: “He would get into grooves of listening to his jazz records…day and night for three days running until you thought you would climb the roof! The house would shake.” (From Helen A. Harrison's "Jackson Pollock and Jazz: Inspiration or Imitation?")

By 1950, as the form developed, bebop music provided an aural canvas within a framework. Parker, along with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, only had about 3 minutes of recording time, on a typical 78-RPM record, to express a theme, improvise on it and then return to the theme and end the tune. Many of the Parker tracks, especially on the Savoy record label, swung hard with extraordinary musical ideas that broke with the past while exploring new possibilities in the music by way of individual expression. In a sense, then, while the tunes had structure with a beginning, middle and end, the solos were abstract: improvised riffs never to be repeated or written down. Bebop was fluid music – full of soul, surprise and risk, much like the art that Pollock created in his “on the floor” paintings, such as Number One, 1950 (Lavender Mist).

I was instantly reminded of Pollock when I heard Strange Attractors, the new album from the Canadian jazz trio Ugly Beauties. The band, which named themselves after a Monk tune, is made up of Marilyn Lerner (piano), Matt Brubeck (cello) and Nick Fraser (drums). They’ve created a record that I would call music in the abstract and it sounds wonderful. All ten tracks, perfectly recorded in the Glenn Gould Studio, Toronto, express a freedom and texture that never stray too far away from their musical roots. But when it does, the results are extraordinary. Many of the tracks swing or bop along while stretching the limits of the music, but what makes this record different is how patient the band is with itself. This is only their second album since 2008 and it is full of humour and surprise, two of the key ingredients that always catch my ears. But it’s not a record aiming to please any one listener or market – that’s not the point. Like a Pollock abstract, it’s a combination of tension and release with contrasting colours and textures, all with an interwoven emotional force that is neither stagnant nor hypersensitive. This is music off the grid: built from the ground up, fully accessible and tuneful. Like abstract art, it’s daring us to reach deeper into our own “inner states of mind,” as Robert Hughes describes the art form it in his excellent book, The Shock of The New.

I particularly like “What Now?,” penned by Matt Brubeck (the youngest son of Dave), for its rhythmic pulse. The track swings then stops then teases us into the rich yet abstract melody. Brubeck’s other featured composition has a similar sound, but, with great humour, is called “Poupée Mécanique” ("Mechanical Doll"). It’s loosely reminiscent of the piano piece by Dmitri Shostakovich, only more developed. That lighter, more whimsical track is followed by a beautiful ballad, called “Open My Eyes,” that has a lot of character. Composed by Marilyn Lerner, the piece is quiet and reflective much like a lot of the music on this album. This is especially evident on “Sniffin’ Around,” written by Brubeck. It was first recorded in 2007 on a duo album by Brubeck and the exceptional piano playe, David Braid. As good as that version is, I found this one a lot more winsome.

The album closes with an extended, improvised piece called “Holometabolous,” which is the scientific word used to describe the four stages of insect metamorphosis. But what’s in a name? Certainly enough to describe the music, but to experience it requires our participation as listeners. For Ugly Beauties ,“listening” is the band’s currency. Strange Attractors is a highly introspective album that creates the space and the time to listen not only to others but also to our own “inner state of mind.”

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.

No comments:

Post a Comment