Mark Helias and Open Loose

Atomic Clock

(Radio Legs Music)

by Will Layman

First things first: this relatively obscure disc is one of the best jazz recordings of 2006.

Mark Helias is one of the finest acoustic bass players in the contemporary jazz avant-garde, a guy who can play inside as well as out and who stretches the boundaries in both directions.   In fact, calling him an "out" cat is too limiting and mildly inaccurate, as his groups tend to play a structured form of modern jazz that sits hard in the sweet spot of jazz tradition.   It's just that Helias also loves to exploit the possibilities of freedom in his bands as well.   Best of both worlds--melodic, harmonized and swinging, yet wide open too.

Helias's trio is called "Open Loose"--presently consisting of the leader on bass violin, Tony Malaby on tenor sax, and Tom Rainey on drums--and that's not a bad name.   You could probably add "tight" in there as well, as the band plays with the kind of togetherness that only a working band can manage.   There are only three of them, sure, and no chording instrument to hem things in too tight, but overall sound is one of casual discipline.   On "Momentum Interrupted" the melody and bassline play in easy counterpoint until they lock into a perfect unison, for example, with Rainey on them like a mouse following peanut butter.   Or there's "What Up" where the swing starts and stops on a microdot and you feel that the trio probably can finish each other's sentences.

But then this record is called Atomic Clock, so precision should not be a problem.   What about the freedom thing?   They have that covered too.   Malaby is not a classic downtown wailer--he avoids the broad vibrato and emotive plainness of Coltrane or Ayler--but he goes outside the chords and the conservatory with wit and mastery.   On "Chavez", for example, he overblows with remarkable control to get two tones at once, letting his intonation float free in carefully chosen spots.   The opener, "Subway", gets more classically "free", with the tenor blurting and foghorning at will--air scratching through the mouthpiece, squeaks repeating like machine-gun fire, cleanly articulated passages tracing chord clusters rather than the usual neat patterns.

Rainey is one drummer you want if controlled freedom is your goal.   Finding a clever middle ground between groove and coloration, Rainey never powers the group like a rock drummer.   He sounds more like a multi-limbed percussion section that plays with uncanny togetherness, arraying cymbals and toms into a dialogue with bandmates.   Most often Rainey is supreme when only Helias is soloing.   The two rhythm players could easily make a duet record, as their portions of the disc fascinate.

It's fair criticism to note that saxophone trio records can get tedious--with not enough harmonic color (from a guitar or piano) to shade the tracks into contrast.   Perhaps that's why Helias presents one quartet track in the middle of things: "Modern Scag" with Elery Eskelin making an appearance as a second tenor player.   This is supreme news, with Eskelin playing late night counterpoint on the ensemble section, shadowing Malaby with relaxed suspense.   It is difficult to tell when the musicians begin to improvise, as the slow and deliberate composition seems to slowly segue in and out of opportunities for freedom.   There are no traditional "solos", yet little that you'll hear this year will sound more like "jazz".

It seems odd to recommend this record as one of the finest of the year, as it appeared so unimposingly.   It was released only by Helias's own record label, and you can't seem to order if from or the other usual outlets.   It will resist enjoyment if you merely put it on in the other room while you cook dinner or as background while you chat with a friend.   It requires an active listening session--the kind of time too few of us have to spend any more.   But its riches are undeniable.   "Atomic Clock" is revealed as a collaged exercise in acoustic hip-hop, for example, and "Plantini" is plainly a kaleidoscope of patterns and rhythms that shifts continually and beautifully.   "Zephyr" is a ballad that seems equal parts Ellington and Ornette Coleman--a combination that hardly anyone would even bother with.

But Open Loose is no ordinary band, and Atomic Clock is no ordinary jazz record.   I'm strenuously enthusiastic about it, as will be all serious jazz fans.   Almost "classical" in its organization and technique, this sequence of improvisations on tantalizing themes is a 2006 highlight that more people need to hear.   Freedom with design, it sounds like the very definition of jazz--the very definition of America at its best.

RATING: 9 out of 10

•  11 December 2006

PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2006

Best Jazz of 2006

Mark Helias and Open Loose

Atomic Clock

Will Layman's list of the year's best jazz records, a hearty baker's dozen, includes iconoclasts, eccentrics, avant-gardists, and some downright swingers.

by Will Layman

Jazz trios without chording instruments--here just Tony Malaby's tenor, Mark Helias's acoustic bass, and Tom Rainey's drums--risk being monotonous.   The solution has often been the inclusion of one titanic soloist such as Sonny Rollins.   Here, the answer lies in great writing--with intricate parts for all three musicians that never sound fussy--and magical interplay.   Malaby is better than you've ever heard him before--sly, rowdy, quicksilver, depending on the tune's mood or the moment.   Helias and Rainey--old partners who've conceived of 300 ways to swing and as many ways to play creatively free--are engaged in the kind of conversation that only takes place at 3:00AM between best friends.   It's not dull.   It's not exactly avant-garde yet it's definitely not mainstream.   A great place to be.

CD Reviews from the July/August 2006 issue


Mark Helias' Open Loose

Atomic Clock

(Radio Legs)

by Jay Collins

29 May 2006   One Final Note Webzine

Bassist Mark Helias is certainly a name known to most folks that follow this music, though like many of his generation, he is frequently taken for granted.   His discography is busting at the seams, of course, having played with scores of folks.   Arguably, his best work has been with his own projects, particularly his cooperative trio with trombonist Ray Anderson and drummer Gerry Hemingway, BassDrumBone (for well over two decades!) or his trio with saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey (with saxophonist Ellery Eskelin or drummer Gerald Cleaver sometimes participating), Open Loose.

With Open Loose, Helias writes a prescription that favors both improvised and written material, the latter of which are spacious compositions that encourage each player's improvisational skills but are peppered with enough thematic material, however subtle, to provide grounding.   Over the trio's four outings (with the most recent two released on Helias' own Radio Legs label), it has proven to be a collective force in its manner of communication and ability to provide just what is required--a propulsive vamp here, restrained tones there, or roomy deliberation the next moment, to cite a few examples.

This ten-cut performance commences and ends with the trio's freely improvised terrains on display with "Subway" and "Many Nows", both capturing the group at its most frenzied and forceful, with Malaby's tightly-wound, yet full-toned attack meshing with Helias' rubbery bass jousts and Rainey's potent expressionism.   While improv is certainly the main ingredient here, the group's talents are not closely confined.   Take Malaby's whispers on "Chavez" or the quiet meditation of "Zephyr", proving that the saxophonist can not only exude lava, but also smolder softly.   If you are after shimmering tenor work, though, Ellery Eskelin's guest appearance on "Modern Scag" is a high point.   Where one might expect a tenor blowout for this meeting, the results are quite the contrary, as the tenors conduct a muted conversation fitting for after-hours reflection.

But where this group seemingly finds its greatest pleasure is navigating Helias' knotty blueprints.   The jagged swing of "Cinematic" tells its musical story through the unison bass/tenor lines and Rainey's colorful punctuations, while the blues-shaded "Momentum Interrupted" saunters forth and Helias' elastic bass runs propel the folkish emotionalism of Malaby's musings on "Plantini".   While the aforementioned are apt representations of Helias' mind, perhaps his best example while in compositional mode is the roving "What Up", an excellent showpiece for this group's interplay, with an approach that faintly reminds of Oscar Pettiford.   Oh, and in terms of oddballs, there is a brief remix/electronically enhanced performance of "Atomic Clock", something that might not be out of place on a Tim Berne record.

Yet another outstanding program from Helias and his trio that brings the bassist's vision to life.   But really, with such a roster and Helias' pen, what's not to like?


By Donald Elfman


Mark Helias--his big steady bass and organic, his compositions ever-changing--continues to set the standard for making music that bears shape and direction but also celebrates the freedom to improvise openly and... er... loosely. For ten years he and his powerful trio have refined and broadened the scope of this music so by now the players share an ethos that allows them to explore what making music in a group means. It's three individuals bonded by the passion of collaboration.

Atomic Clock was documented by the brilliant and understanding John Rosenberg at Brooklyn's Barbès--the recorded sound and the venue giving the musicians the space to dig down and then soar. Helias is in the captain's seat yet he directs the enterprise in an ego-less fashion, thereby coaxing the fullest expressions from the other players. Saxophonist Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey (and original Open Loose tenorist Ellery Eskelin added for one track) explore this music and--as Helias describes it--both construct and deconstruct the compositions. Repeated listenings help reveal what at first seems like some free-form wandering--and that's as it should be.

Particularly fetching are several of the slower and more deliberate-sounding tunes. "Chavez," as some Helias-ish notes indicates, suggests a spooky transmogrification from one Chavez into the modern one. "Zephyr" is a dark and moody ballad that calls to mind Ornette and his disciple the late Dewey Redman, with whom Helias worked. The leader comes out of the opening statement with a solo that reminds us of his strong individual sound and the fact that it's so beautifully directed towards the totality of the music.


Atomic Clock (Radio Legs)

I think that if I were a bassist who wrote his own tunes, I'd want Tony Malaby in my band. The guy's equipped--he can read down anything and improvise his tail off, besides. Add that he's unusually intense, and you have the perfect horn player for über-bassist Mark Helias' Open Loose. As befits the trio's name (drummer Tom Rainey is the third member; tenorist Ellery Eskelin guests on one cut), Helias writes sophisticated if relatively slight sketches that serve primarily as platforms for collective improvisation.

While the group engages in its share of high-energy free jazz play, this music maintains an almost airy feel. The inchoate wash of sound that characterizes much jazz-based free improv is absent. In its place is a more finely detailed music that lacks nothing in terms of emotional directness. Drummer Rainey is every bit as well matched to Helias' concept as Malaby. He generates energy, but just as important, he generates ideas. As for Helias, few bassists possess his chops and melodic ingenuity. The rather distant sound quality is a flaw (the session was recorded live in a Brooklyn club). Still, the heightened group dynamic makes this album easy to recommend.

-Chris Kelsey Jazz Times  

CD Reviews from the July/August 2006 issue

Atomic Clock

Mark Helias' Open Loose | Radio Legs (2006)

By Jerry D'Souza         

In a career spanning over twenty years, Mark Helias has worked with some interesting musical collaborations and concepts. He has constantly searched for the new and challenging, whether it has been in the company of musicians like Ray Anderson, Pheeroan akLaff, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway, to name a few--or in his writing, which encompasses chamber music, big band charts and smaller collaborations like a bass duo with Hemingway.

Helias' concept of open loose sits in well with the band. Both Tom Rainey (drums) and Tony Malaby (tenor saxophone) are adventurers, like Helias. The logical impetus of the pieces lets the edge of composition open into the expanse of improvisation, making for a distinctive encounter.

Open Loose lives up to the image right off with "Subway," a tumultuous tune that flips over and about on Malaby's tenor. He honks and squawks, exhibiting a restlessness that is fanned by Rainey, and Helias moves from plucking to bowing the bass for a deeper resonance. The pitch has been set; expect the unusual. The mood, however, is something else. Helias never lets his compositions go over the top or wallow in the muck of confusion.

And so, when the next tune comes in, it turns out to be lyrical and melodic. "Chavez" offers a quieter exposition, Malaby in an emotional groove that twists off into an occasional tangent. On this inspiring performance, Helias adds the contours in a short but potent solo. Ellery Eskelin comes in for "Modern Scag," a slow tune that finds the two tenor saxophonists playing neat ensemble lines, then subtly diverging before they go in for some conversation-trading ideas.

It's time for more contrast. "Many Nows" is an improvisatory piece, the three musicians locked in empathic collaboration, thoughts given vent, picked up, extended and explored. The pulse is in flux, from the reflective to the upbeat, the tension palpable. The latter quality comes to the fore as Malaby skewers the harmonic line, turning it over and out, rendering a robust outpouring of feeling that slithers over skittery drums and a pounding bass line, bringing to an end a recording that engrosses as it captures the imagination.

Track listing: Subway; Chavez; Cinematic; Momentum Interrupted; Modern scag; Atomic Clock; Plantini; What Up; Zephyr; Many Nows.

Personnel: Mark Helias: bass; Tom Rainey: drums, percussion; Tony Malaby: tenor saxophone; Ellery Eskelin: tenor saxophone (5).

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