Endangered Blood — Work Your Magic (Skirl, 2013)
The first album did have “Epistrophy,” but it was a version darkened by crinkly bass clarinet. Work Your Magic has “Argento,” a breezy swing tune with Jim Black’s bustling racket going on behind the straight-faced horns. “Blues in C-Flat Minor” really is a blues, albeit in 7/8 time and propelled by some bubbly, unconventional drumming.
And “LA#5,” apparently a nod to Lester Young, is a sweet ballad. Black goes into quieter mode for this one, using brushes for a more subdued style (as on his piano album, Somatic). Trevor Dunn gets a a nice bass solo before Chris Speed’s tenor sax takes over with his tart sound.
Most of Speed’s compositions reach further afield than that, though. Manzanita” starts with written counterpoint lines for alto sax and clarinet, sometimes with one player pulsing one note while the other one weaves in and out of the fabric. It’s a summertime cerebral jazz, played out politely until the group careens into speedier form. “Kaffibarinn,” named for an Icelandic bar, uses light Glassian arpeggios and a heavy melody of stern chamber music.
It’s all executed well, as you’d expect from these guys. Speed (tenor sax/clarinet) and Jim Black (drums) have been together since the ’90s in groups like Human Feel and Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. Oscar Noriega (alto sax/bass clarinet) has been on the post-downtown scene almost as long, and he’s most recently gotten airtime as a key part of Berne’s Snakeoil band. Dunn (bass), a darling of the out-rock set, has also been delivering solid jazz chops for any number of groups, including some great Bay Area groups in the late ’90s.
You do get more of the jazz in Speed’s playing on this album, and less of the wandering microtonal musings that he often favors. I like that. There are plenty of sax or clarinet solos over a bass/drums jam, certainly, but there’s also space for untethered improv duets (as on “Ah-Le-Pa,” which includes a nice Dunn/Black workout), criss-crossing composed lines for the reeds, or delicate chamber-jazz moments.
Further toward the outer edge of things, “International Four” (written by Hilmar Jensson, who’s played with these guys in other contexts) starts with free improvisation at a fast jog, full of sax/clarinet squawking, then gets into a composition of attractive long lines, a long path of bursty notes.