Paris Transatlantic review by Clifford Allen

Samuel Blaser Quartet – Pieces of old Sky (CF 151)
Pieces of Old Sky marks the second disc in barely as many years by trombonist Samuel Blaser’s quartet. The only returning member is bassist Thomas Morgan; Blaser is joined on these seven original compositions by percussionist Tyshawn Sorey and guitarist Todd Neufeld. The trombonist’s pedigree is strong – Swiss-born and working in both Brooklyn and Berlin, he’s won the Benny Golson and J.J. Johnson prizes and occupied trombone chairs in the European Radio Big Band and the Vienna Art Orchestra. One would assume that the natural choice following those exploits would be to assemble a top-rank contemporary hardbop group and play the shit out of some Jazztet-like charts. Not so Blaser; in addition to this staunchly open (albeit not “free”) quartet, he’s also released a disc of extended solo playing in the tradition of ‘bone abusers like Paul Rutherford and Günter Christmann, and performed in duo with veteran Swiss drummer Pierre Favre. Blaser’s tone is crisp and clean, but he has a strong command of multiphonics and a tendency to work long, low tones like a bass trombonist or tubaist.
Neufeld’s guitar playing here has a dustbowl sensibility suggesting filmic folk-rock, and stands in stark relief to the slush and poise of the leader’s phrasing; the results recall the grainy distance of the Nels Cline Singers. The lengthy title piece offers a field of mournful strums, mallet wash and loose pizzicato outlines, a windblown landscape that sets the stage for an oddly precise bluesiness. Following the leader’s cleaned-up “Everywhere”-like statement, guitar and bass draw around each other, teasing out Spanish-tinged moments and borough skitter. Sorey’s suspensions and bombs are placed with muscular exactitude, a grand component of this modern tone poem. Blaser’s sound is totally his own, rich and deep and with a curiously Latinate musk; his heady and romantic storytelling fills in the atmospheric holes left by the ensemble.
“Red Hook” is given a knotty run-through, before Sorey and Morgan untie those knots and make new ones of their own. Sorey is one of those drummers who changes moods with such deftness and speed that one might miss the initial structure of an idea, since it’s quickly replaced by its reconfigurations. All that technique might be tiring if it weren’t part of a larger purpose, and the duet he performs with Blaser midway through is full of such natural, song-like flutter that mere “exactitude” doesn’t matter. “Mandala” returns to the approach of the opener, blues-rock flecks fleshed out with a bit of Mangelsdorff growl that falls away into spare, front-porch detail. Unlike a lot of young upstarts with jazz chops to spare, Blaser is equally convincing working in more exploratory, collectivist forms of improvisation, and the results on Pieces of Old Sky are thoroughly convincing.–

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