The Empty Cage Quartet - formerly known as the MTJK Quartet - is a longstanding collaborative project featuring trumpeter Kris Tiner in the front line along with saxophonist Jason Mears, backed by bassist Ivan Johnson and drummer Paul Kikuchi. Though I was not familiar with the other players on this fine 2-disc set, I have long been a fan of Tiner's trumpet playing - his contributions here (and elsewhere) combine peerless technique with a rigorous, Miles-like economy, and a folksy sort of lyricism that one does not usually find in avant-jazz. Their music draws on the legacy of avant-jazz greats such as Bobby Bradford, John Carter, and Ornette Coleman, while exploring the extended compositional forms pioneered by Anthony Braxton and Tim Berne. The emphasis, as Hello The Damage amply demonstrates, is on creating something new around the historical framework of avant-garde jazz.
Though hampered somewhat by the flat, mediocre sound quality of the live two-track recording, the music on this sprawling two-disc set is uniformly excellent. Each track (there are only three spread over 2 CDs) encompasses two or three distinct compositions which - according to the liners - can be cued by any band member at any time during the performance. Lacking familiarity with the compositions, it was hard for me to tell which ones begin where. The music really grooves throughout, and there is no lack of thematic material, so much - but not all - of Hello The Damage comes from the jazz side of the avant garde continuum. There is a focus and forward motion to this music that I found to be consistently engaging, despite the length of the pieces. Yet, when the group engages in total improvisation, the results are pointed and cogent. In this way, The Empty Cage Quartet resembles Tim Berne’s Bloodcount groups from the late 1990s.
Both Mears and Tiner are aggressive, adventurous soloists with one foot planted firmly in post-Ornette modern jazz, and the other wandering around into all sorts of musical areas. Mears definitely prefers the alto saxophone, though he is quite effective on clarinet and flute - he picks up each only briefly. On the second disc, the band really catches fire as Tiner and Mears trade solo features through the different sections of the continuous 45-minute-long set. Throughout, bassist Johnson and drummer Kikuchi seem to be of one mind, taking cues from - and giving cues to - the horn players, and shifting effortlessly from one groove to the next. For the adventurous listener with a yen for novel modern jazz, "Hello The Damage" is 90-odd minutes of high-content entertainment. Give these guys a major-label budget, and they may well take over the world!