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Artist: Sticks and Stones

Album: Sticks and Stones

Label: 482 Music

Review date: Oct. 7, 2003

Fans of Thrill Jockey will likely be familiar with at least two of the three musicians on this record. Drummer Chad Taylor is a primary member of the Chicago Underground Duo/Trio/et al. Bassist Josh Abrams is known for his work in Town and Country, as well as playing with Tortoise, Sam Prekop and Brokeback. The group’s third member, Matana Roberts, performs with the Boston Microtonal Collective, is a member of the venerable Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and has studied with such jazz innovators and academics as Steve Coleman, Joe Maneri, John McNeil (whose composition “Lose My Number” is covered here), and Ran Blake. This trio, from the start, constitutes a provocative mix of progressive players.

While Sticks and Stones is far more conventionally 'jazz' than much of the jazz-informed music created by Thrill Jockey’s roster, there is a swinging, unrestrained tone to the music that is reminiscent of a few of that label’s bands—notably and understandably the Chicago Underground collectives. The best way to describe the music heard on Sticks and Stones is probably post-bop, which, admittedly, can mean anything from Eric Dolphy to Wynton Marsalis. The music is given to a little more groove than traditional bop, and the melodies are a little simpler. The band is recognizably informed by avant garde and Free Jazz traditions, and the playing is uniformly unrestricted.

The songs here are equally divided between the three composers in the trio, with two covers (the aforementioned “Lose My Number,” and the Junior Delgado/Lee Perry tune “Sons of Slaves”) included within the collection. On the impressive reading of “Sons of Slaves,” the musicians aren't fazed by the disparity between dub and jazz-- they deftly incorporate a bass-heavy, percussive groove while still essentially sounding like a jazz act. The subdued playing on this track nicely exhibits the overall collaborative effort of these three musicians (as songwriters as well as players) and their common ability to complement each other’s vision (even if Abrams does eventually come to the forefront).

Taylor’s compositions initially stand out as the most methodical, down-tempo passages on the record, particularly “Suhassani,” the most honest ballad of the bunch. Indicative of the goals of the record as a whole, On the pieces penned by Taylor, the group displays an urge to break free of the seemingly calm confines of the compositions. This tendency is heard most clearly on “End of the Game,” particularly in its excursions into barking swing, which flow into free wandering and back again. The drummer’s final track on the album, “Salvador,” is reminiscent of Sun Ra, with its meandering rhythm and optimistic horn poking in and out of the melody.

Abrams’ tunes, as one might expect of this trio’s bass player, employ the most sophisticated bass arrangements on the album. His three songs offer ample space for both Taylor and Roberts to play over him—in many ways Abrams is this band’s anchor—but also showcase exactly how much is going on at the low end of this record. Taylor and Roberts virtually explode throughout this album, but Abrams’ songwriting most poignantly reminds the listener of the collaboration of three musicians at play here.

The cooperative aspect of the playing on this recording (perhaps most recognizable in theory) aside, this band ultimately comes off as a platform for Roberts to present her esoteric vision of contemporary jazz. The more texturally ambitious soundscapes of Town and Country and the Chicago Underground groups are entirely absent here. This is strictly—if rather avant garde—jazz, of the variety that is more similar to the outside work of Roberts than to that of the other two players.

If Roberts seemingly emerges as the leader of this band, she’s also the group’s best songwriter within the musical context (i.e., straight-ahead jazz) explored on Sticks and Stones. Roberts’ “Hannibul” offers a kind of free jazz squawk as its centerpiece. That track is easily the loosest composition on the album, and the song is more well-suited to the other two members than anything else found here. The track is then followed by the strangely conventional “Spaces,” a slow-tempo groove incorporating a lucidly stated melody with little improvisation. The juxtaposition of these two songs, though, expresses Roberts' command of jazz songwriting, and utilizes that talents of Abrams and Taylor wonderfully: the former taps the two musicians' wonderfully spastic abilities to play freely, and the latter demonstrates the rhythm section's appreciation of a structured groove. The two songs are also the most fully realized expression of the talents of these players.

By Cory O'Malley

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