(117) Bill Tilland, BBCi -- 7/15/03

Another shining jewel in Cryptogramophone's crown, this recording features trombonist Scot Ray leading a quartet of label regulars, including the peerless Cline brothers (Nels and Alex) on guitars and percussion respectively, Jeff Gauthier on violin and Stuart Liebig on bass. However, leading (or following) is problematic for this group of musicians, because their collective style is always highly interactive, with various combinations joining together in duet and trio formats throughout. Ray is given plenty of chances to show off his chops, but he hardly dominates. And while traditionalists may regard the presence of electric guitar and violin in the group as unconventional, it's a combination that works brilliantly, thanks in part to the natural sonorities of the instruments, but also to the gifts of Nels Cline and Jeff Gauthier. Both can mimic reeds and brass with uncanny accuracy, giving the quintet a rich, fat sound. Guitarist Cline continues to amaze with his matter-of-fact integration of thrash and avant garde flailing into a jazz context, although he is equally at home in a half-dozen or so other styles. This, together with Gauthier' s expressive violin, give the group access to an array of timbres and textures well beyond the reach of the standard jazz quintet.

Leader Ray brings the tunes, all of which are all his own compositions. A number of pieces develop from repetitive, staccato riffs, twisted and pulled in several directions while individual musicians improvise over the top. "Above Breath" opens with a terrific unaccompanied trombone intro. Later, Scot and bassist Liebig are featured in a duet, and the two sound like a pair of elegant elephants doing a stately little dance.

Perhaps the most audacious piece is "In Cleveland", which begins with a bouncy disco theme (anyone for the twist, or perhaps the frug?), but then develops into something much less predictable, with great interplay between Cline and Scot. However, the title piece wins the funk sweepstakes, with great bone work, lots of punch from the rhythm section, and some of the nastiest, most distorted guitar imaginable from Cline, who stutters, sputters and howls behind the theme statement like a man possessed.

Equally impressive are three long pieces that unfold in a more leisurely fashion. Two are ballads ("Man as Kite" and "Bitteroot"), and here, the quintet plays it straight, although with the characteristic little wrinkles in instrument groupings and writing that consistently distinguishes this group from the run-of-the-mill equivalent. "Trouble with Sugar" begins as a free conversation among quintet members and then moves into a boppish theme, sometimes alternating with a controlled, eight bar collective freakout. Here (and elsewhere), the humour and expansive use of musical materials (everything from Ellington to greasy funk and atonal bursts of noise) brings to mind the compositions of Charles Mingus, and that's no bad thing.

Bill Tilland