'Drift' opens the CD with what sounds at first like a particularly strong offering on the ECM label - a stochastic pinging of damped piano keys, bass harmonics and tiny percussion sounds gives way to a chiming piano figure and Van Huffel's brooding melody. Samuel Rohrer builds a moderate tempo rhythm that isn't quite rock but isn't quite jazz either, and supports Miles Perkin's bass solo perfectly. I really enjoyed the way that Rohrer's playing builds behind Van Huffel's razor-sharp solo, which, in turn benefits from pianist Jesse Stacken's unusual but extremely effective comping. Now, on a typical jazz CD, the remainder of the tunes would be more or less similar in nature. No so on Like The Rusted Key. 'Intro to Beast' is a very angular free improv that quickly gives way to the high-octane excitement of 'Tangent,' a gripping, dynamic, and somewhat unhinged piece that reminded me a bit of some of John Hollenbeck's work with the Claudia Quintet. But Van Huffel and his group play with a wild and wooly energy that contrasts sharply with Hollenbeck's polished, cool efficiency. 'Enghavevej' is quite a bit different as well, sporting a jauntily rocking pulse and a melody that straddles the line between cheery and manic. Stacken's solo here is full of Monk-like wit and derring-do, and Rohrer's drumming is too busy in the best possible way. 'Backward Momentum' is another real stunner - with Rohrer's seemingly random percussion gradually coalescing into an urgent rhythm behind Van Huffel's piquant melody. Stacken has another brilliant solo feature before the tune changes into a dark, visceral post-bop romp.
The rest of Like The Rusted Key is similarly impressive, inspired, and varied. 'Beast I' and 'Beast II,' as 'Intro to Beast' suggests, are free-ish pieces with asymmetric, Ornette-like melodies suspended over Rohrer's slashing cymbals and criss-crossing polyrhythms. 'Beast II" features some really distinctive, and quite beautiful, playing by bassist Miles Perkin. While I am attracted to the energetic aspects of Van Huffel's music, this CD also offers some pretty unusual twists on what some might consider the ballad form. The dark, elegiac 'Excerpt Two' sounds a bit like a Gregorian Chant, with growling arco and softly malleted drums and cymbals providing a diffuse backdrop to the saxophone and piano. 'Atonement' is even darker and more haunting, with a molasses-slow but drop-dead beautiful melody intoned by Van Huffel and Perkin's bowed bass. The CD's most unusual track, however, is 'Melancholic.' Here, Stacken plays a series of isolated piano chords that have approximately 20 seconds of silence intervening. After about three minutes, Van Huffel picks up one note of the chord and extends it a few seconds out into the silence - venturing out farther each time. As Perkin, almost inaudibly, joins Van Huffel, the pattern is disrupted somewhat as the piano, saxophone, and arco bass begin to operate more independently. While this is not the sort of thing you'd want to listen to in a car, the overall effect is pretty sublime, and seems more akin to the work of Morton Feldman than jazz of any stripe.
Like The Rusted Key is a thoroughly engrossing document of a little-known, but flat-out amazing quartet of musicians who play as if their lives - and ours - depended on it. I came away from from this CD both inspired and impressed. Easily one of the most rewarding listening experiences I've had this year. Fresh Sounds, New Talent indeed!