Open Loose Press
Mark Helias & Open Loose
One thing that never gets mentioned in relation to jazz trios is the sheer NERVE involved. Piano trios are textually easier to embrace, with all that chordal warmth fleshing out the bare bones. But with a sax, bass and drums you better be sure you know what you're doing. Bassist Helias, whose track record includes sessions with Anthony Braxton, Dewey Redman, Mose Allison and Don Cherry (amongst hundreds of others) is, of course, well up to the job, as are the other two members of Open Loose: Tony Malaby (sax) and Tom Rainey (Drums). Strange Unison, their fifth album - is a fine demonstration of how to make such tricky music sound remarkably relaxed and easy
Thursday, March 6, 2008
Mark Helias' Open Loose trio consists of himself on bass, Tom Rainey on drums and Tony Malaby on sax. And yes, what more can you ask for in jazz-land? All three musicians have an extraordinary track record and resume, and are hence much in demand, with Helias and Rainey figuring easily on more than 100 CDs, and Malaby on more than 50. And they are not just mere creative instrumentalists who fit in any musical environment, their level of artistry is high too, as was already demonstrated on the previous albums of the trio. "Strange Unison", falls perfectly within the line of expectations. This means that the musical quality is high throughout, with nice compositions, a great rhythmic drive and great soloing, free and unbound, yet all within the range of what can be called "accessible", full of emotional power and creative interplay. It also means that a little bit of the risk and the adventure are gone, but what the heck, who cares?
OPEN LOOSE [MARK HELIAS/TONY MALABY/TOM RAINEY] - Strange Unison (Radio Legs 013; USA) Featuring Tony Malaby on tenor sax, Mark Helias on double bass & compositions and Tom Rainey on drums. This is the fifth fine disc from Mark Helias' great trio, Open Loose. Except for their first disc that featured Ellery Eskelin on tenor, the personnel has pretty much remained the same. Over the past few years, whenever I've heard Mark Helias play live, he has knocked my out each time. Mark opens "Graveling" with his magical bass sound/approach. This is a most perfectly balanced trio with each member an integral part of the group sound. Tony's warm and enchanting tone is at the center of this tune with Mark's resonant bass and Tom's distinctive swirling drum style. "Blue Light Down the Line" is a fine laid-back and bluesy song with Tony's blustery, old-school tenor tone swaying slowly in the shadows. "Sonic Rights" is a hoot, a slightly twisted tune with an odd structure that is as difficult to explain as it is to play. The production here is superb with Mark's bass lusciously recorded. The opening bass intro on "CBJ" is just magnificent sonically speaking. When Tony's haunting tenor comes in, it is just too much, a big sound, a grand tone that is hard to deny. I love the way the trio jumps through dynamic hoops on "Illustrate" as they shift through a complex set of changes. Like wow! The bass and drums solo together near the end and are just incredible in the telepathic interplay. Master drummer, Tom Rainey, is another secret/special ingredient here, he constantly moves in mysterious ways, his playing has a unique, organic way of weaving his own percussive style within structure and style of each piece. Tom has a way of making the other members sound better, balancing the rhythm, melodic and composition perfectly. It seems to me that each disc by Open Loose just gets better, more focused and solid as a one force or statement. A most mature offering like expensive wine or fine cheese. Dig in, my friends, for a fine meal for ears, heart and soul. - BLG
Bassist Mark Helias' compositions for Open Loose, are, fittingly, loose and open. Joining the leader are two NYC/N.J. new jazz stalwarts: Jersey City tenor saxophone powerhouse Tony Malaby and drummer Tom Rainey. The three listen intently, and work empathetically, at times edging into robust group improvisations, as on "Circling." "Blue Light Down the Line" is earthy and bluesy. Here, the warm-toned tenorman delivers an emotive story with soft, breathy notes, small evocative phrases and those more expansive and slippery. The bassist scores with simple, telling remarks via a fat, ringing tone, as Rainey taps quietly in accompaniment. After a bass solo intro, "Graveling" moves into a winsome groove. Here, Malaby ranges widely, from soft, pliant tones to brays and shouts. "CBJ" is a slow free work with impressive warmth
Newark Star Ledger
Helias's discography is a who's who of modern jazz and improvisation: Michael Moore, Evo Perlman, Oliver Lake, Yusef Lateef, Gerry Hemingway, Dennis Gonzalez, Marty Ehrlich, Anthony Braxton, Marilyn Crispellm Bobby Previte, &c, &c. Open Loose is his trio, and this is their fifth release under that name. This is incredibly creative music that shifts from tight rapid playing to beautiful ballad work using modern playing and compositional techniques. Released on Helias' own Radio Legs Music label this is an excellent set of original compositions.
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 Amazon.com 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
[11 December 2006]
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 LaymanJazz 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.
Mark Helias' Open Loose
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?
Jay Collins 29 May 2006 One Final Note Webzine
Mark Helias' Open Loose
"Atomic Clock" (Radio Legs, 2006)
Tom Rainey-drums, percussion / Tony Malaby-tenor saxophone / Mark Helias-bass / Ellery Eskelin-tenor saxophone
Helias's discography is a who's who of modern jazz and improvisation: Michael Moore, Evo Perlman, Oliver Lake, Yusef Lateef, Gerry Hemingway, Dennis Gonzalez, Marty Ehrlich, Anthony Braxton, Marilyn Crispell, Bobby Previte, &c, &c. Open Loose is his trio, and this is their fourth release under that name. Joined by Ellery Eskelin on one track ("Modern Scag") this is incredibly creative music that shifts from tight rapid playing to beautiful ballad work using modern playing and compositional techniques. Released on Helias' own Radio Legs Music label this is an excellent set of original compositions.
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.
MARK HELIAS' OPEN LOOSE
Verbs of Will (Radio Legs 011)
There is a real art to making convincing, compelling small group music. Throughout his career, despite a lack of much -deserved critical attention, Mark Helias has practiced this art admirably. Along with a select handful of bassists--John Lindberg, Dave Holland and Joe Fonda come to mind-- he’s consistently led memorable combos. Though his groups have often featured his compositions. Open Loose generally trades in unfettered improvisation in a manner similar to Tim Berne’s Paraphrase. Featuring drummer Tom Rainey, tenor player Tony Malaby and Helias, this trio has lived up to its name in a series of splendid recordings. This one, on Helias’ own label, is the most focused I’ve heard, Many of the pieces incorporate compositional nuggets--unison lines, rhythmic patterns and so forth-- but these are generally springboards for freewheeling playing. There’s plenty of muscle but it’s only used in special circumstances; restraint and crystal-clear focus are more common. Each player occupies one of several roles on his instrument, adept at but not limited to the expected modes of performance. Rainey’s linear drumming might almost be melodic, while Helias can attack his bass with percussive force. And Malaby’s strong tenor sound gives him great range and flexibility, most notably on the nasty blues “How Bout it” or the heartfelt “Mistral Angel.” All across, there’s a beautiful integration of form into freedom, telepathic interplay between all three, and a real sense of the trio as an expansive entity--either starting as three distinct parts and coalescing or the reverse. Open Loose is one of those groups who sound as if they just don’t care where they’re pigeon-holed: mainstream/outside, tight/loose, flowing /disruptive, whatever--these guys play it all and it rocks. Jason Bivins Signal To Noise
HELIAS' OPEN LOOSE - Verbs of Will (Radio Legs 011)
Helias & Open Loose New School (Enja)
Journal (Spring 1999)