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The Cosmosamatics - Cosmosamatics II

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Artist: The Cosmosamatics

Album: Cosmosamatics II

Label: Boxholder

Review date: Feb. 20, 2003

More Direct, Less Dynamic

For me, one of the standout jazz releases of 2001 was Two Days in April, the first release from a quartet composed of tenor saxophonists Fred Anderson and Kidd Jordan, bassist William Parker, and drummer Hamid Drake. I'm still enjoying Two Days because of the uniqueness of this group’s approach to improvising. Yes, this group plays “free jazz,” but it is free jazz that does not conform to any previously established definition thereof. They draw as much from Art Blakey as they do from Albert Ayler and sound assured no matter what bag they’re drawing from.

The Two Days quartet is able to do this because of its members’ versatility. For example, Hamid Drake, in addition to being Peter Brotzmann’s drummer of choice, has gigged with reggae bands for years, and Fred Anderson, who possesses a Coleman Hawkins-derived tone, was a founding member of the AACM, Chicago’s celebrated avant-garde collective. When these guys go out, they go way out, with Drake and Parker swirling freely underneath Jordan’s excoriating runs, and when they stay in, they swing heavily, with the rhythm section providing a slippery but solid grounding for Anderson’s relentless, tart-toned forays. The group's breadth of technique was a big reason why Two Days was so powerful.

It is with this same excitement that I approached Cosmosamatics II, the second release by New York’s Cosmosamatics. Like the TDQ (Two Days quartet), this group formed from several generations of players. Altoist Sonny Simmons has been recording since the early 60s, during which time he collaborated with the likes of Eric Dolphy and Elvin Jones. His co-leader, multi-reedist Michael Marcus, and the group’s bassist, Curtis Lundy, first surfaced in the late 70s. Drummer Jay Rosen, meanwhile, has risen to prominence in NYC’s “downtown” scene only during the last decade. The members’ diverse pedigree (Simmons cut a couple of daredevil sessions for ESP, while Marcus has toured with bluesman Albert King and Lundy with vocalist Betty Carter) indicates that, like the TDQ, they ought to be equally adept at inside as well as outside jazz.

Unfortunately, this is not the case. The Cosmosamatics' self-titled debut record captured some of the tension between traditional and free jazz styles, with the rhythmic feel of performances like “Quasar” starting off funky and disintegrating into textural chatter, but this new release is based entirely on rigid rhythm vamps. Was it new recruit Lundy’s idea? Or were Marcus and Simmons simply trying to accommodate his straight-ahead style? Either way, these structures stunt the group’s potential for real-time interplay.

Consider, for example, Simmons’s “Echoes for Eric Dolphy,” which is based on a bluesy, swinging vamp in 5/4. Throughout 13 minutes, Rosen and Lundy never seem to find the pocket in this rhythm. Rather, they harp on the pattern in an extremely obvious way that distracts the listener from the horn soloists. It's telling that Rosen plays more openly once he begins his solo on this tune. One senses that he would have done so much sooner had the group’s original bassist, William Parker, been on board.

Aside from this occasional rhythmic squareness, Sonny Simmons sure blows a mean horn, and the tunes that he and Michael Marcus have composed for this project are almost all winners. Marcus’s “Fusionanatomy” boasts a swaggering, complex head that marries Eric Dolphy’s extreme interval leaps with Monk’s mid-tempo solipsism, while on the aforementioned “Echoes,” the saxes dance in dizzying unison, oddly oblivious to the vamp underneath.

On this tune, Simmons swings in an inspired, abstract way. He constantly strains for the upper register of his horn but rarely cracks; his rhythmic fluidity recalls Charlie Parker. Marcus is a fun, enthusiastic player. He likes to play all over his axes (which include the straight tenor, soprano, bass clarinet, and flute), gurgling and bleating in a style that becomes stale (on “Fusionanatomy,” for example) on its own but serves as a nice foil for Simmons’s when the two blow together.

Maybe I’m imposing, but I yearn to hear the group marry the free-time feel that dominated their first session with the straight-time approach presented here. Apparently, the edition of The Cosmosamatics that appeared at last year’s Vision Festival in NYC was a trio that featured only the legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille along with Simmons and Marcus. Here’s hoping that by the group’s next session, the regular Cosmosamatics rhythm team has absorbed some of Cyrille's inside-out prowess.

By Hank Shteamer

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