Boneshaker

Boneshaker

Familiarity breeds contempt, or so says the old saw, but the best jazz ensembles thrive on it. Rigorous practice and regular performance nurture among component players a psychic lingua franca, a finely honed instinctual rapport that leads to alchemically conversational works.

Boneshaker, though, doesn’t get together too often. 

Few players are busier than the three that constitute Boneshaker. Saxophonist Mars Williams is cut in the mold of Nels Cline or Marc Ribot: When he’s not leading extemporaneous free music groups, he’s touring as a sideman for big pop acts. Last year, he toured for nearly five months with The Psychedelic Furs, the English new wave band he’s been a part of for nearly 30 years. Bassist Kent Kessler has his feet planted in the avant-garde scenes in Chicago (where he frequently collaborates with Ken Vandermark, Hamid Drake and Joe McPhee) and Europe (Mats Gustafsson, Misha Mengelberg, Peter Brötzmann). Drummer Paal Nilssen-Love is Norway’s Art Blakey, leading from behind the kit his Large Unit ensemble of rising Scandinavian jazz musicians when he’s not playing with any one of his seemingly innumerable combos. Moreover, there’s a matter of physical distance: Williams and Kessler are in Chicago, but Nilssen-Love, when he’s not globetrotting, splits his spare time between Norway and Portugal.

“It’s definitely difficult,” Williams says. “There was a point where we were able to get together like one tour a year, whether it was in Europe or in the States. But it was usually pretty short — like, a week and a half tops.”

But distance doesn’t dull the trio’s longstanding chemistry. Williams and Kessler have played together for decades, most notably in the late Hal Russell’s NRG Ensemble, and the genesis of the trio came within Peter Brötzmann’s Chicago Tentet, where they worked with explosive Norwegian drummer. Indeed, Williams argues, that its members spend so much time apart is a boon for Boneshaker. Sparring with different musical partners sharpens each member’s vocabulary; when they reconvene, their collective idiolect is broader — and their music the better for it.

“For us, it’s always this constant search of new music and new styles and new techniques for ourselves,” Williams says. “So when we all come together again after being away from each other, we’re bringing something else to the palate. We each all have something new to add to the improvisation.”

Live sets, then, aren’t rote setlists. Consider Fake Music, the trio’s latest long player. It was released in mid-March but recorded in early 2017. Its three long-form, spontaneous compositions unfold not in narrative arcs but in shaded maps of intensity and clarity, revealing its players’ obvious roots in the American and European traditions of free jazz (e.g., Brötzmann’s muscular, paint-peeling salvos; Albert Ayler’s naïve, gospelized swirls) while highlighting each player’s unique techniques. 

“Miakoda” lands repeated, heavy body blows across its first seven minutes before melting into a balladic calmando around the seven-minute mark, Williams’ vibratoed, breathy sustained lines waltzing around Kessler’s sparse countermelody. Even as Williams raises the pitch of his peals to dog-whistle frequencies and Kessler and Nilssen-Love build in intensity around him, the song’s romantic mood persists. Even Nilssen-Love’s two-minute drum solo follows a melodic motif, his pitched toms creating babbling melodies as he moves across them in athletic rolls. After a few minutes of stop-start pointillism, “Lovin’ the Buzz” revs on a riff that sits along some lambent boundary between punk, funk and acid jazz; as soon as it gets settled, it mutates into a brief Latin jazz vamp that dissipates almost immediately after appearing. 

It’s in these hairpin left turns that Boneshaker unveils its personality, but its dry wit, too. The cuts on Fake Music are stuffed with musical jokes and japes: Williams’ descending, warbling sax lines on “Lovin’ the Buzz” sound like peals of laughter; Nilssen-Love’s small-gong crash at the outset of the moody, eerie atmospheric into of “Echo Clang” is seemingly a piss-taking counterpoint to the rising tension of bowed bull fiddle skritchings and cymbal scratchings. Across the record — indeed, damn near anywhere in Boneshaker’s ad-libs — Williams is likely to pull from his literal bag of tricks, deploying toy and thumb pianos here and whirling, moaning whirly tubes there. If he were to pull out a clownish bike horn, well, it wouldn’t surprise him.

“I love putting humor in and Paul’s the same way, so is Kent,” Williams says. “We could laugh while we’re playing. Somebody does something or whatever, and we could laugh. We could look at each other and be smiling, instead of being so serious.”

It isn’t simply tomfoolery for its own sake. The winking nods heighten the intrinsic lyricism and soul in Boneshaker’s free jazz, offering tangents to the lucid rigor of its abstract passages and a salve to its shifting structures and raw textures.

“The thing about improvisation is it’s always this interesting thing,” Williams offers. “So there’s that element, too, that we are familiar with each other’s playing. And each time we do get together, there is something different about what happens within the group. The group has a sound. It has somewhat of a style, the Boneshaker sound, but it’s different. Every time we get together, there’s something a little bit new that we bring to the table.”  

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