From the first moment I heard Jon Lundbom & Big Five Chord I was hooked. My first experience was of the group’s 2011 album Quavers! Quavers! Quavers! Quavers!. Since then they have experimented with different ways to release their music. The group’s next album, No New Tunes, was a digital/LP only release and for their subsequent release they joined the long tradition of recording epic double live albums with Liverevil. This year Lundbom decided switch things up again by recording four EPs, releasing each one every few months. In order of release: Make the Magic Happen; Bring their “A” Game; Play all the Notes; and Make the Changes. All four EPs are available individually and can also be found in a special limited edition 4 disc set entitled 2016: EPs. What’s great about releasing music in this fashion is that it strikes a balance between an older view of the album as larger holistic statement and the contemporary consumption of music in individual portions of digitized bytes. Only have 20 minutes? Pick your favorite. Have nearly two hours? Put on all four. It’s a strategy I don’t believe I’ve seen before, and it is the foundation for what is arguably one of the finest albums of the year.
Aside from the Ornette Coleman tune that closes out each EP (in order: “Law Years,” “W.R.U.”, “Humpty Dumpty”, “Enfant”), each tune is written by Lundbom. His music doesn’t foreclose any possibilities or interpretations. They are wide open and offer lots of room for exploration. And refreshingly, given the group’s avant tendencies and pedigree, there’s almost no tiring obligatory free-jazz-blowouts. Bucking convention, many of the tunes do not restate the head at the end—they end at the conclusion of the final solo. These open endings leave the listener wondering what could happen next, almost in a Choose Your Own Adventure mode.
What is especially compelling is the subtle mix of a variety of grooves and tempos and phrasing (medium swing, backbeat quasi-funk, bebop, free), which are often stacked upon or juxtaposed against each other. “Wrapped” (Bring their ‘A’ Game) begins with a jaunty, angular line for the front line while bassist Moppa Elliot walks at a faster tempo, creating tension. Following Lundbom’s solo and a composed transition alto saxophonist Jon Irabagon and tenor saxophonist Balto Exclamationpoint (Bryan Murray) trade—but not in a standard alternating four or eight bars way; they overlap, interject, and gradually end up weaving in and out of each other simultaneously. Meanwhile the rhythm section (rounded out by drummer Don Monaghan) fluctuates tempi and rhythmic feels to provide a churning push-and-pull underlay. Their solos fade out, end of cut.
Each piece is also a showcase for the incredible improvisational chops of each player. “La Bomb” (Make the Magic Happen)—played at a tempo slightly faster than a nervous dirge—is a clinic in motivic development and solo construction. Both Lundbom and Irabagon take ideas and refashion them in myriad ways, take them in new directions, and often return to them later, giving narrative shape to their solos. As on “Wrapped,” “Ghost Tatoo” (Make the Changes) further demonstrates the rapport the players share with each other, as the cut’s first half feature an Exclamationpoint and Irabagon duet, during much of which Irabagon repeats a five note figure that Exclamationpoint uses for inspiration. Monaghan joins in, the horns continue to tweak the five note figure, and Elliott subtly appears just before the track closes. At just over six minutes it’s one of the collection’s shortest tracks, and one almost wishes Lundbom would have joined in and continued the slow build in complexity and devolution. One could imagine had it gone on several longer it would have meticulously fallen apart in a most delightful fashion.
The performances and compositions across each EP are of a uniformly high and creative level, and the use of a Coleman tune each in one further unifies the set. This is free jazz, not so much in the “lets free ourselves from time, meter, form, harmony, etc,” but in a way where the common framework and reference point encourages each player to be free to employ a variety of vocabularies and take things in new directions.
One of my favorite things about Big Five Chord is its mix of rigorousness and unabashed irreverence, which comes across in myriad ways. Some squares may bristle at Exclamationpoint and his balto! saxophone (an alto played with a hard rubber bari sax mouthpiece) and thunder tube (a tube with a drum head on one end attached to a long spring)—
[some of the greatest hits from the press materials include: “Note the [balto’s] trademark “goose-strangling” sound and Exclamationpoint’s liberal employment of its famed “groin scraper” note”; “Exclamationpoint has prepared his tenor by sticking his thunder tube in the bell. It is a simply amazing performance, undoubtedly the highlight of this first EP. Exclamationpoint’s playing is spectacular, his use of the thunder tube revelatory”; “Exclamationpoint lets loose with a god-damned genre- and decade-specific capital-F capital-J Free Jazz solo, flexing a specific jazz history muscle all too rarely worked.”]
—yet Exclamationpoint has spent a lot of time on the balto! and has mastered the wide range of unconventional timbres and tones the instrument can produce. Dismiss it, or laugh at—or with—it if you like, but he is exploring ways to find new sounds and modes of self expression, tongue-in-cheek as it may be (or may not?—that one cannot entirely tell is the beautiful thing).
And the individual EP titles, genius: Make the Magic Happen (remember on MTV’s Cribs that every master bedroom was introduced as the place “where the magic happens”); Bring Their “A” Game (cliche detritus); Play All the Notes and Make the Changes (both titles working as/repeating a multi-leveled back-handed compliment, slam, and/or variation on sad jazz criticism cliches/forced praise). I’m sure other listeners will give a slight chuckle to different interpretations that pop into their heads.
Just because one does not take oneself too seriously does not mean one is not serious. These fellas are both not too serious, yet extremely serious; players do not get as good or accomplished as Lundbom and company are without years of dedicated practice. But I find that the group’s irreverence—when combined with its restless creative energy, serious chops, inventiveness, risk taking, and respect for the tradition (note the Ornette tunes)—is what draws me to their music, and why I find it so compelling. Adhere to tradition too much —> become calcified. Use it as the foundation for building individual voice —> make something special and new.
And that’s what Lundbom and Big Five Chord has done yet again: respecting and drawing from tradition while having unique and important individual voices use and warp that tradition to create something fresh. Their aesthetic is not either/or. It’s both/and, and it’s this dialectic relationship that makes Big Five Chord one of the most vital and sparkling groups working today.