Larry Ochs Sax & Drumming Core: Stone Shift (2009)
Larry Ochs, best known for his work with the long-standing ROVA saxophone quartet, has been working an unusual and satisfying side project for close to a decade. His Drumming Core, founded in 2000, is a trio with two drummers dedicated to exploring American field hollers and Asian chants. The first two CDs were rewarding, if more as an opportunity to hear Ochs as the sole melody instrument than for the East-meets-West concept. But for their third release, Ochs has expanded the band (and made it more truly an Asian-American hybrid) with the addition of pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura.
Stone Shift is, plain and simple, a remarkably exciting record. The concept of the band remains buried (neither a detriment nor, necessarily, an asset), but as a meeting of five powerful players (Scott Amendola and Donald Robinson make up the drum corps) it's stellar. The compositions seem for the most part to state theme and then orchestrate the ensemble into a carousel of duets and trios. It is dramatic and exultant (and no surprise, then, that the band's songbook includes dedications to Akira Kurosawa and David Cronenberg).
A primary bit of curiosity about the disc will no doubt be Fujii's appearance on synthesizer in addition to her usual piano. A strong composer and bandleader in her own right, Fujii has been pushed in unusual directions (not just the synth but, more recently, accordion) in projects led by the mischievous Tamura. Here is her first appearance as a synth player, at least on record, outside of Tamura's hard-driving compositions and hearing her in a freer setting is surprising. When the band appeared at Roulette on Oct. 13th, she sat quietly as the horns opened the set and then mimicked both at once on the Casio keyboard, bending and shifting pitches like she was wringing out a rag. Fujii, of course, has a strong sense for dynamic interaction and hearing her a bit like a kid with a new toy is one of the many nice sidelights of the record.
But the main light is Ochs' smart use of this new group. The four long (10 to 20 minute) compositions are endlessly varied, rather amazingly so. What might be most surprising is how, ultimately, it doesn't feel like a drum record. It is rhythmic of course, polyrhythmic and propulsive, but Ochs doesn't let the presence of two drum kits dictate the music. The instrumentation may be a little unusual, but it is, ultimately, a hypnotically intelligent small-group jazz record.
Track Listing: Across From Over; Abstract Rising; Stone Shift (for Kurosawa); Finn Veers for Venus.
Personnel: Larry Ochs: tenor and sopranino saxophones; Satoko Fuji: synthesizer, piano; Natsuki Tamura: trumpet; Scott Amendola, Donald Robinson: drums.