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by Ian Mann

July 23, 2014


A worthy leadership début from one of Britain's most imaginative and in demand improvising musicians.

Dominic Lash Quartet


(Babel Records BDV13122)

Oxford born double bassist and composer Dominic Lash has been a frequent presence on the Jazzmann web pages, a musician who has earned the admiration of both myself and my one time co-writer Tim Owen. Lash has been part of the jazz scenes of Oxford, Bristol, London and New York (he spent much of 2011 living and working in “The Big Apple”) and is a regular collaborator with improvising musicians from both sides of the Atlantic.

My live sightings of Lash have been at the Queens Head in Monmouth where he has appeared twice as a member of Alex Ward’s quartet Predicate and once as an equal partner of the improvising super-group Tony-Joe Bucklash alongside saxophonist Tony Bevan, guitarist Joe Morris and Necks drummer Tony Buck. All of these performances have been enjoyable and memorable (albeit sometimes challenging) with Lash making substantial contributions to the success of each event.

Although Lash is best known as a freely improvising musician my favourite context for his playing has been with the Convergence Quartet, a trans-Atlantic alliance that skilfully blurs the boundaries between composition and improvisation as Lash joins forces with British pianist Alexander Hawkins, American cornet specialist Taylor Ho Bynum and Canadian drummer Harris Eisenstadt.
The quartet have released two live albums “Live In Oxford” (FMR Records, 2007) and “Slow And Steady” (NoBusiness Records, 2013), the latter recorded at The Vortex as part of the 2011 London Jazz Festival. There is also an equally effective studio album “Song/Dance (Blues)” recorded for the Clean Feed label in 2010.

Lash’s début as a leader embraces many of the virtues that make the Convergence Quartet such an appealing proposition. There is a similar willingness explore the hinterland between structure and freedom, composition and improvisation. Indeed Lash’s liner notes go so far as to describe his pieces on this record as “a collection of my compositions for improvisers”.

Those improvisers prove to be his Convergence colleague Alexander Hawkins on piano, plus the Spanish musicians Javier Carmona on drums and percussion and Ricardo Tejero on tenor saxophone and clarinet. The group began as a trio featuring Lash, Hawkins and Carmona in 2009 with Tejero joining the ranks in 2011. Lash subsequently recorded the duo album “Southville, Summer”  with Tejero in Bristol during 2012. 
Meanwhile American trumpeter Nate Woolley, with whom Lash recorded in New York in 2011, provides a second set of liner notes for “Opabinia” outlining his own reaction to the quartet’s music.

Lash is best known as a “free” player yet he retains a strong interest in composition. A formidably talented bassist,  both with and without the bow, his playing embraces extended techniques and he has worked with such giants of the improv genre as saxophonists Evan Parker and John Butcher and guitarist John Russell. Lash has also recorded regularly, check out his website for his full discography.

“Opabinia” takes its name from an extinct creature from the Middle Cambrian period whose fossil remains have been found in the Burgess Shale of British Colombia, Canada.. The title was chosen both for the “extraordinary weird beauty” of the creatures themselves and as a homage to palaeontologist Stephen J Gould’s hypotheses regarding the concept of “contingency” in his book “Wonderful Life”. Lash draws parallels to the contingent events that have enabled his quartet to make music together. It may all sound a little dry and academic but it serves to reveal that Lash is a musician of considerable intellect, and, as the album’s press release puts it, one with “a rigorous aesthetic and a deep commitment to produce non idiomatic improvised music”.

“Opabinia” is in fact a good deal warmer and more accessible than the previous paragraph might suggest. It’s by no means an easy listen but it’s a record with much to offer the adventurous listener. For all the improvisation Lash’s themes are sturdy enough to maintain the listener’s attention no matter how far the improvisers may stretch the fabric of the tunes.

Opener “Isthmus” commences with the eerie but strangely beautiful sound of Lash’s bowed bass, evolving slowly into a group performance as percussion, piano and saxophone slowly introduce themselves. Lash puts down the bow as Hawkins and Tejero intertwine above his plucked bass lines and Carmona’s percussion skitters playfully about it all. For all its abstractions it’s oddly compelling and represents a genuinely democratic statement.

The segue of “Waiting For Javier / Luzern” begins in almost straight-ahead fashion with Tejero’s blues flavoured tenor to the fore. Hawkins is one of the most imaginative pianists around and his lengthy, restlessly inventive solo evokes comparisons with Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor and Myra Melford. The sudden, squalling re-emergence of Tejero’s tenor drags the music kicking and screaming into more idiomatic free jazz territory in a bruising coda. 

Some of the items are little more than vignettes such as the sax and bass duet “Hallucigenia” featuring Tejero’s harmolodics and Lash’s responsive pizzicato bass lines.
The piece acts as something of an overture for “Lullaby of the Limpet (for Ella)” which features the most lyrical playing of the set, particularly from Hawkins whose playing makes immaculate of space on a gently pellucid intro and subsequent solo.

The playful “Azalpho” features Tejero on clarinet and juxtaposes warped trad elements with a teasing odd meter shuffle that sounds positively intoxicated and concludes in a tantalising series of false endings. It’s tremendous fun, albeit in a cerebral kind of a way, and I’d hazard a guess that it’s probably an absolute bugger to play. 

“Halt the Busterman” begins in more orthodox fashion with the sound of Carmona’s drums before he and Lash establishing a rumbling funk groove topped off by Tejero’s tenor. The group remain in saxophone trio mode for much of Tejero’s good natured, subtly bluesy solo as Hawkins takes something of a back seat. This is one of the most conventional sounding pieces on the record but is no less appealing for that.

By contrast the following “Wiwaxia” is an improvised duet involving Lash and Carmona, an extremely brief vignette featuring the other worldly sounds of Lash’s extended technique arco playing.

Similarly the following “Double File” sounds largely improvised as Tejero’s clarinet twines sinuously around Hawkins’ Cecil Taylor-esque piano phrases as Lash fulfils the anchor role and Carmona offers succinct percussive commentary. Every member sounds fully involved in what is a supremely responsive and interactive unit. It’s a credit to the chemistry between the members of the quartet that the album was recorded in the course of a single day in early 2013.

“Anomalocaris” is another vignette, a charmingly jaunty miniature featuring just Hawkins and Lash that sounds, somewhat tantalisingly,  like a fragment from a larger work. 

The album concludes with the lengthy two part composition “Piano Part Two / Catachretic”, arguably the focal point of the record. The piece begins with Hawkins in impressionistic mode, his playing sparse and glacial with long, aching, pregnant silences between the notes, so far so ECM.
The development is very gradual as Lash’s almost subliminal bowing is added to the equation followed by disjointed, low key percussion details and tentative saxophone murmurings. It’s effective, but arguably over long and is eventually superseded by a more upbeat, more obviously jazz passage featuring a typically jagged but invigorating Hawkins solo.
After another brief impressionistic episode the piece incorporates a remarkable feature for Carmona on a variety of highly exotic sounding percussion before concluding much as it began with Hawkins’ sombre piano chording.

Despite its occasional longueurs “Opabinia” covers an impressive amount of ground and strikes that important balance between the written and the improvised to create music that is adventurous but not impenetrable. The album represents a worthy leadership début from one of Britain’s most imaginative and in demand improvising musicians.     

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