Dominic Lash Quartet - Opabinia
(Babel Label. Babel 1103988. CD review by Jon Turney)
Several short tracks here, and the CD itself, take their names from fossil species found in the celebrated Burgess Shale rock formation in Canada, which gave up relics of a sudden evolutionary spasm known as the Cambrian explosion. For reasons not entirely understood, this phase of earth history saw the trial of a whole clutch of new body plans, whose appearance seems radically strange to us upright bipeds.
They aren't depicted musically - how could you? - but the reference is a hint about how bass player and composer Dominic Lash's mind is working, perhaps. There are musical specimens here that have established themselves in our ecosystem - a funky bass lope here, a bluesy lead there. In between are more tentative, less recognisable sound formations, an abstract scuffle on the strings, a sprinkle of piano clusters, like new mutations seeking a niche.
Fanciful? Perhaps. And if this conveys a little of Lash's calculated approach to composition, it doesn't do justice to how much fun this recording is. It is one of those sets where, because absolutely nothing is ruled out, when a passage of almost straight swing kicks in it sounds fresher, somehow, newly minted.
Lash developed his improvising and composing in Oxford, London, New York and now Bristol, but this is his first recording as leader. He is joined by pianist of the moment Alexander Hawkins, adding to his rapidly expanding discography, (he plays with Lash in Taylor Ho Bynum's Convergence Quartet), London-based Spanish drummer Javier Carmona, and Carmona’s compatriot Ricardo Tejero on reeds.
If that seems a conventional jazz quartet line-up, it results from an interest - shared by these musicians - in jazz as one rich source of elements to investigate, along with free improvisation and contemporary composition. These are not players who are ever going to settle into a category. Those are things you talk about because critics harp on them. They just want to make interesting music together.
They succeed admirably, everywhere from the four Cambrian explosion sound sculptures, each less than a minute, to the slow unfolding of the closing quarter hour long Piano Part Two/Catachretic, which mirrors the whole set in interspersing coalescent episodes expressed through jazz idioms with thoughtful abstraction. It could be frustrating if your ear seeks pieces that finish the way they started, though surely in 2014 it's no longer disorienting. I hear it simply as the natural expression of artists who have taken the trouble to achieve fluency in an unusually diverse set of ways of expressing themselves and are collectively exploring where that takes them. In these hands, whether those controlling Tejero's attractively dry alto saxophone and warmer bass clarinet sounds, Carmona's loose but precise drumming, Hawkins' intensely focussed piano or Lash's now earthy, now keening bass, it's a place where each of the varied elements enhances the other, and the listener gets the benefit.