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Fieldwork - Door

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Artist: Fieldwork

Album: Door

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Apr. 22, 2008

The generation of avant-garde and modern creative musicians now in their late 20s and early 30s reside in a strange and relatively ignored class of popularity. They have impeccable training thanks to the living legends of the genre – Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams, Roscoe Mitchell, Dave Burrell, Fred Anderson, etc. – being apt to take upcoming players under their collective wings, and have the opportunity to embrace their skill completely with jazz in general being emancipated (for better or worse) from the late night clubs and into the highest throngs of academia. With a lengthy discography of triumphs and embarrassments to study, not to mention a dense, interweaving tree of sub-styles and hybrid genres to explore, these ripe musicians have the most promising atmosphere in jazz history to take advantage of and be heard.

But who's listening? The older jazz fans enjoy reissue after repackaged reissue of the same classic albums over and over again; the kids are drowned in an over-abundance of hype and momentary hysteria to have the attention span for more demanding listens; and the musicians' own generation has been over-exposed to a crippling degree of Nazi Marsalis neo-traditionalists, smooth jazz and easily accessible jazz-rock and rap hybrids to have enough energy or want to embrace new explorations of the genre. It's as if only the critics and musicians themselves are truly listening, which only pushes the once celebratory music further into the clinical labs of academia.

Fieldwork is one of these misplaced groups. The trio of structured improvisational composers – pianist Vijay Iyer, saxophonist Steve Lehman, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey – create a crisp, confident sound on Door, equal parts early ’60s Ornette Coleman, late ’70s Art Ensemble of Chicago, early ’90s Steve Coleman and late ’90s/early ’00s Matthew Shipp. Each composition sounds confident and assured, and most impressively, the sonic weight of each instrument is at a perfect balance. Despite Iyer's often thick chordal propulsions, it never drowns out Lehman's taut, knotting lines of alto sax and Sorey's conversational percussion work. Chalk this up to the once-again excellent mixing of Scotty Hard, whom Fieldwork dedicated Door to after his recent health struggles.

Each of the three composers has a song worth mentioning. Iyer's "Less" swings out of a tentative introduction between his searching piano vamps and Lehman's tonal sighs. The M-Base background takes shape as the song reaches development: Iyer's left hand provides a deep bass pulse while his right hand increasingly riles up agitation; Sorey teases with momentary funk rhythms; Lehman just tries to find the proper groove and ride. But that groove never arrives, leaving the trio to settle down into a spry exploration of chamber jazz atmosphere. During Sorey's "Pivot Point," Lehman really lets loose, embarking on confrontational speeds of rambunctious, Coleman-like serpents of atonality. The track is meticulous and tight, which would seem to negate the use of heavy improvisation; but it's equally as spirited, making exact replications of a particular take an impossibility. Or in other words, it’s the exact definition of a quality structured improvisation composer.

Lehman's "Rai" closes out the disc. Odd melodic counterpoint and stuttering phrasing between Iyer and Lehman unfold into a propulsive jackhammer of a song. Sorey especially shines as he skillfully shifts the song from stammering to relentlessly driving with his precise kit work. But despite the intensity, Door still feels quite tempered and controlled. Though there is too much structure and tight framework in the arrangements to truly categorize this as such, Fieldwork could greatly benefit from some of the anxiety and hysteria of a good free jazz record. The meticulous perfection in tone and rhythm, the crispness of recording and the careful calibration of ideas and the sonic weight of each instrument all point to a fine contemporary avant-garde jazz record, but in the same breath negate the innate rebelliousness of the genre involved.

It becomes music you’d hear at a graduate school performance or upscale NYC art gallery rather than a dingy, smoke-filled loft space or an ill-attended weekday night at a small bar/venue trying to diversify their patronage and reach out to the outer edge of local musicians. It’s intellectual academia versus spirited radicalism, or highbrow versus lowbrow, and this type of music needs to find a midpoint to really excel. Fieldwork resides too close to the former pole to find an audience outside their already established network, despite impressive compositional and performance feats. The critics will love Door, as will fellow jazz musicians, but a wider audience will still remain unfazed and disappointingly uncaring.

By Michael Ardaiolo

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