One thing that sets Greg Malcolm well apart from his peers on New Zealand’s free music scene is his grasp of jazz. He doesn’t just like the stuff, he plays it, informed by an idiosyncratically assembled pantheon of players who broke out between the late ’50s and early ’70s: Ornette Coleman, Conrad Bauer, Charlie Haden, and especially soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy.
This album is his deepest dip in the jazz pool yet. It was recorded in 2006 at Wellington, New Zealand’s jazz festival, and was an attempt to deliver something appropriate to the occasion, although his liner notes admit that he probably didn’t have to; Birchville Cat Motel was also on the bill. But Malcolm nonetheless played an entire set of Lacy tunes, filtered through his even more idiosyncratic technique. He plays several guitars at a time; one set on his lap and relatively conventionally fingerpicked, sometimes another at his side, and a couple festooned with contact microphones and set in the vicinity of his stomping feet. His actual picking sounds a bit like a cross between Duane Eddy and Joseph Spence, but his amplified footwork is closer to a Tom Waits rhythm track interspersed with shuddering feedback eruptions.
Malcolm can kick up storm – witness the eruption of fuzz at the end of “The Crust” – but at heart he’s a melody man, which makes Lacy’s compositions especially a propos. Lacy’s music could often be reduced to a sung line; Malcolm takes those lines as the instigation for scrawls that run well off the jazz page. His groove clanks more than it swings, and his extrapolations take Lacy into an imagined zone bounded by folk, rock and noise.
“Ducks” opens with some noises right out of Hans Reichel’s daxophone book, then settles into a twanging, melancholy meditation that floats over a combination of stomp and drone, like a Zeppelin slowly cruising over a rolling prairie. “Blues For Aida” juxtaposes an e-bow excursion closely akin in timbre to a singing saw with a bold articulation of the theme, while something like a chain gang clanks remorselessly behind. He may take Lacy’s material to places that Lacy would never go, but I like to think that if Lacy were still alive, he would give it a nod like he gave Windows, Mats Gustafsson’s baritone sax solo tribute to the man. After all, this is one man using another’s creative work as a vehicle for his own ideas, making the material his own without betraying its spirit.