Track and Field

From Zurich, we have the free-jazz improvising trio who call themselves ,?’s with their album Track (NO LABEL). I suppose if you run these characters together as they are printed on the front cover, you end up saying the word “track stars”, which implies a certain athleticism and stamina which are good qualities for a jazz musician to possess, if you subscribe to the view that this genre of music requires musicians to play very quickly and for a long time. Jonas Labhart is the leader and saxophonist, a fellow who seems to have been casting around for a music identity, since he previously added his blowing skills to an album of funky soul by Sulco and an ambient cassette by Styptic. There’s also the violinist Laura Schuler and drummer Berni Doessegger.

I like the spare sound of this group, and they leave plenty of space for each other in their starkly “open” performances, without losing the rhythm or forward momentum as they pose their slightly enigmatic musical riddles. Schuler in particular gets extra votes from the judging panel, as we love the sound of the violin in jazz (my Leroy Jenkins LP collection alone is a cornerstone which I defend against all comers), and she not only has a great sound but her inventive phrases are often surprising and nimble. However, both she and Labhart seem to have just one basic mode between them, and it’s a faintly melancholic one. The album is mainly interested in exploring this rather disenchanted and almost existentialist frame of mind, and consequently the atonal passages and the open gaps take on the aspect of a doubtful, uncertain viewpoint. It’s up to Doessegger to keep the music moving forward and provide enough of a pulsebeat so that it can still be termed “jazz”, but even he is plagued by that 21st-century malaise that causes him to hesitate and stumble when he could be rolling forward in a chariot. In assessing their achievement to date, Labhart clutches at phrases such as “self-empowerment beyond musical ideologies”, “ongoing negotiation” and “symbols [of] imaginary space”.

The shared aim of the band is to “question the act of collective improvisation”, through which they hope to “deconstruct its own horizon”. An unusual record. I can’t help thinking it would be nice if these musicians could meet up with Christoph Erb and maybe get in on the Veto-Exchange thing. From 5th November 2019.

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