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It Would Be Easier If by Ken Thomson and Slow / Fast

Reedman and composer Ken Thomson is one busy dude. Besides his steady gigs with the edgy avant-jazz-rock group Gutbucket and the avant-garde marching band The Asphalt Orchestra and his affiliation with the Bang On A Can project, he's also a member of the World/Inferno Friendship Society, Brad Lubman's 'Signal,' Fire in July, the No Net Trio, and is a co-founder of the Anti-Social Music collective. And that's just a partial list! 'Slow / Fast' is Thomson's latest project, and composing, arranging, organizing, and successfully playing this music alone would keep a mere mortal busy at least half-time. Fortunately, Thomson's boundless energy and enthusiasm is matched by that of his colleagues in Slow / Fast – a veritable all-star aggregation of New York's finest musicians. Trumpeter Russ Johnson and guitarist Nir Felder are young musicians who've cemented their reputations as New York's heaviest players. Drummer Fred Kennedy and bassist Adam Armstong, while less well-known, haven't far to go to get to the same level of recognition - though their playing is already there.

With Slow / Fast, Thompson's modus operandi is to play various musical the worlds up against – or with – each other. On It Would Be Easier If we hear novel combinations of improvised and composed music, tonal and atonal, rhythmic and non-metric, pianissimo and fortissimo, and – you guessed it – slow and fast. For an ostensibly 'jazz' oriented recording, there is a tremendous amount of written material on this disc, much of it very difficult to play, though it's not at all difficult to listen to. One of the tracks, 'Wanderangst,' is through-composed, and two others ('Goddamn You Ice Cream Truck' and 'No, No, No') diminish the importance of improvised statements in a really creative way. The primary improvised part on 'No, No, No' – which is essentially a beautiful rubato horn chorale - is played by drummer Fred Kennedy, who conjures an impressive array of sounds from his kit using only mallets before switching to brushes at the end. The title of 'Goddamn You Ice Cream Truck' was inspired by the constant distraction of ice cream trucks parading outside Thomson's house while he was composing the piece. Of all the pieces on “Slow / Fast,” this comes closest to evoking the sort of music Thomson usually performs with Gutbucket. It features a lengthy, fiendishly difficult, dissonant / consonant horn line over a tricky staccato drum-bass-guitar figure that just doesn't seem to repeat at all. The centerpiece is a frenetic unaccompanied solo by guitarist Nir Felder, who skillfully uses the horn part as a jumping-off point.

The opening track, 'Kleine Helmet,' is actually quite lovely, and has a pensive, ECM-like quality to it. The combination of Thomson's bass clarinet and Johnson's trumpet reminds me of those wonderful LPs Manfred Schoof did with clarinetist Michel Pilz 30-odd years ago for the ECM subsidiary, JAPO. Solos by Johnson and Thomson are lush, passionate explorations of the tune's odd-yet-fetching chord changes. Then, Thomson pulls a fast one on us by using different melody to close out the tune! The title track is darkly beautiful ballad that builds up into a avant jazz power ballad with especially nutty guitar work from Felder. Along the way, the lengthy melody is interrupted by improvised interjections from Thomson. 'Wanderangst' starts out in a similar mood, lightened a bit by guest Melanie T. Sehman's glockenspiel and Felder's chummy comping. Each line operates at a different, but related, tempo – with Felder and Johnson playing long tones behind the doubletime clockwork of the rhythm section and Thomson's quadruple-time bass clarinet. As the piece develops, the players switch roles and constantly modulate into new rhythms and new melodies to create music that is singularly fascinating and exquisitely varied.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Ken Thomson and Slow / Fast
  • CD Title: It Would Be Easier If
  • Genre: Free Jazz / Avante Garde
  • Year Released: 2010
  • Record Label: Intuition Records
  • Rating: Five Stars
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