Tom Rainey Takes the Lead
Tom Rainey Trio — Pool School (Clean Feed, 2010)
For the amount of work Tom Rainey has done, the sheer number of big-name players he’s backed up — Tim Berne and Tony Malaby, yes, but also more mainstream work with Fred Hirsch (a 1992 standards LP) or Mark Feldman (on an ECM-recorded, non-Zorn like date) — it’s nice to see him listed as the leader on a CD.
Not that it has to be that way, but when someone’s put together a solid body of work, it’s good to have a CD with their own name as a landmark, something you can point to in appreciation of what they’ve done. The trio isn’t a vehicle for Rainey compositions, though; it’s an all-improv session with two strong musical personalities: saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and guitarist Mary Halvorson.
The session stands out for its quirky personality. There’s an edgy, sour-toned aesthetic that Halvorson brings to the group and that Laubrock and Rainey successfully play off of. It does not have the feel of improvised jazz — that is, the shapes, motifs, and drum patterns you’d associate with free jazz. But the sound is also distinct from many other free improv recordings; it flourishes with strange, dissonant non-jazz chords and a sense of melody gone askew.
Laubrock and Halvorson are willing to follow each other off the rails. That makes for a rougher-edged session than Sleepthief, the trio album with Labrock, Rainey, and pianist Liam Noble. Sleepthief was plenty adventurous — check the piano sweeps and skronky abandon in “Environmental Stud” — but its milieu was mostly crystalline piano against colorful sax lines. Pool School explores a wider scope of sound — and yet, since the tracks are all less that six minutes, there’s a compactness to each little journey.
“Three Bag Mary” is a good place to start. It opens with a blossoming, florid ugliness: simple guitar notes greeted by a rambling catcall of sax and some tough-edged snare thumps. It’s like a calculated ugliness, not just white-noise screeching. But then all three players stop momentarily, and the guitar and sax shift into a kinder, slightly more elegant playing — while Rainey sticks to his guns, returning to a bumpy, irregular sense of rhythm. These kinds of sudden shifts appear on a few of the tracks; the group veers and careens well as a unit.
“Home Opener” is a more varied stroll through multiple styles. After a few minutes of easygoing playing, the band hits a pause, with Rainey thumping out some slow, irregular beats. Then Laubrock latches onto a quick sax riff and Halvorson follows in suit by switching on the rock-guitar distortion, for a brief moment of noisy skronk.
“Coney” opens with a jagged tumbling, with Rainey playing softly thudding toms like a body falling down an infinite flight of stairs. It’s a subtly standout moment for him, crafting the mood of the piece without taking over the foreground. Laubrock and Halvorson follow with appropriately scattershot playing, and it all accelerates into a crash, leading to a peaceful, slower segment.
I liked the flow of “More Mesa,” one of the calmer tracks. It’s got a quiet start, with cymbal splashes, buzzy sax, and tense, fluttering guitar chords — active elements, but a setting where the group is in no particular hurry. It’s as if they’ve found a point of focus and want to explore it for a few uninterrupted minutes. The track picks up momentum as it goes but stays in a mellow, thoughtful vein. Not everything has to be a skronkfest.
The trio did a live set at WFMU that can be heard on the Free Music Archive — check it out via this Lovegloom blog entry.