Empty Cage Quartet – Stratostrophic (CF 103)
Stratostrophic is the Empty Cage Quartet’s third official studio album. Formerly known as the MTKJ Quartet, the adventurous young West Coast-based ensemble features Tim Mears (alto saxophone, clarinet), Kris Tiner (trumpet, flugelhorn), Ivan Johnson (bass) and Paul Kikuchi (drums, percussion). A cohesive mix of exuberant free jazz, angular post-bop, stark chamber aesthetics and propulsive post- Braxtonian structures all figure prominently in their singular sound.
Balancing extended episodes with brief sketches, Mears and Tiner (the principal composers) demonstrate a newfound versatility in their writing. Their previous reliance on long-form compositions is now offset by the inclusion of concise miniatures which provide periodic interludes to a handful of prolonged excursions.
Five years together have imbued the group with a deep rapport. Mears and Tiner demonstrate their close-knit partnership as they weave expansive contrapuntal melodies and harmonious voicings with sonorous density. Mears’ keening cry and brash multiphonics orbit Tiner’s half-valve smears and muted refrains as they alternate collective and individual statements.
Johnson and Kikuchi pilot the band through thorny time signatures with subtle forward momentum that expands from aleatoric whispers to pummeling grooves. The formerly all-acoustic ensemble now dabbles in electronics, with Kikuchi adding nuanced kaleidoscopic accents.
The quartet’s sympathetic accord is palpable as Kikuchi and Johnson dance around variable tempos while Mears and Tiner fire onomatopoeic salvos that sizzle and burn on “Again a Gun Again a Gun Again a Gun.” Racing in unison to the finish, soaring horns provide an ascending climax as bass and drums thrash unfettered in the undertow.
Inspired by assorted styles, they draw on punchy hard bop for the intervallic counterpoint of “Old Ladies” and the freewheeling “Through the Doorways of Escape Come the Footsteps of Capture.” Conversely, “The Power of the Great” and “Aurobindo” elicits shadowy atmospheres with obtuse angles.
The 17-minute finale, “Don’t Hesitate to Change Your Mind,” offers a wide range of dynamics, veering from soulful lyricism to volatile expressionism. Their adept listening skills, self-effacing interplay and respect for structure are displayed in a variety of settings, from austere soliloquies to fulminating collectives.