It's hard to be more spontaneous than this. A live show for radio broadcast, played without benefit of rehearsal. The numbers were called from the stage, many played for the first time. (Some had never been heard by their composers!) And one piece is totally improvised, existing only that moment, then captured on tape. Apt is the drowning man on the cover; music like this is swim or fail. Most of it swims; the textures weave as soft voices react to each other. Johnson says it all: "We are listeners."
The "Old Fellow", I gather, is Hans Teuber; his soprano moves slowly over nervous drums. Johnson broods on wiry notes, and the brushes patter on. Teuber finds a three-note pattern, varies it nicely, then evolves to a raspy sigh. Hear the bass toughen, and a bottomless bass drum. Johnson's turn creeps low, then plucks with a speed out of context. The parts are well-formed, but they don't exactly fit. Likewise for "Hi-Fly": bass and sax look at the theme, but not for long. It never gets fully started, and the tune becomes a study in contrast, slow reed with fast rhythm. Billy Mintz' solo, all hollow thumps and scattering brushes, is a keeper. Then Johnson starts bowing, a rusty lament with ominous overtones. Mintz eats it up, slapping heavy when the furor starts. The solos are king on this one; the theme sounds uncertain on where it wants to go. For the rest of the album, that problem is gone.
"Shadow Me", a free improvisation, starts with an Oriental reed against delicate cymbals. (A cell phone destroys the mood.) When Mintz steps it up, Hans gets tougher: little shouts that pierce the air. All instruments speak, and no one leads ñ this is the mood. Now a surprise: "Moonlight Serenade" begins straight, Teuber lovely over strong bowing. He then scales a spooky line before repeating the theme; now Johnson walks. On this arid ground the beauty shines, the pensive sax and the faintest of drums. Jeff has his best solo, which is the sound of thought. He'll pause on a note, move to its neighbors, play with volume ñ time is suspended, while the mood remains. This is truly a conversation, and it speaks to me.
More active is "Love and Beauty": Teuber twirls, a ballad tone in a mist of cymbals. He sounds confident, less breathy than normal. All his mates need do is follow him, which they do in many ways. If any tracks says "We are listeners", it is this one.
The charge is impressive on "Chariots for Anthony". That's Jeff, bending hard on the funk riff. While the tune is wispy, the bassline prevails, and always comes back. Teuber sounds his most reflective, and up in clarinet range. When stated the second time, the theme is strong, and matches the bass. Then Hans takes it wistful, four notes in all permutations. He flutters, he shrieks, the drums assail ñ the bass is eternal. The crowd is silent. All attention is on Jeff and his solemn tapping, going astray but the riff returns. Cheer Mintz on a tumultuous finale, and relish the interplay honed to an edge. The crowd, by their attention, recognize they have heard something. As do you.