On the back it says ‘There is no improvisation on this recording’, which sounds like a manifesto to me. And inside there’s an extract of score to back this up. The CD was sent to me by Rich Woodson, and is the second album from his band Ellipsis. It’s heavy stuff, verging on big C complexity, but here scored for an avant-jazz/rock line-up of clarinet (Anthony Burr), sax (Aaron Stewart), guitar (Woodson), bass (Mat Fieldes) and drums (John Hollenbeck).
It begins with some heavy guitar growling against a loose drum pattern that shapes into a lop-sided groove of sorts. Then the horns enter with a long unison melodic built around an ascending riff, adding a new rhythmic layer. Just over a minute in, as your ears have had time to reconcile the terraced layers, the group abruptly unfurls a dense, angular polyphony in which individual lines while, never seeming to hold together, never quite cancel one another out. It’s a challenging sound, but executed with great skill and concern for balance and a texture that is both chaotic and tightly bound, and dominates the rest of the recording. Every now and then moments of sweetness break through, like cherries in a rich fruitcake – a bar or two in unison, a settling onto a single note, the faint whiff of a groove – and it is the pacing and placement of these that organise each track, and the record as a whole.
For the most part the tracks are edited together into a continuous flow. This enhances the relentless challenge of the music, but forces one to find space and form in the details. At the end of the opening track, ‘Looking for the Right Reflection’, the guitar growl and horn riffs return in a clear nod to jazz head motives, but that’s as transparent as anything gets here.
As the album proceeds, however, the contrasts and textures begin to open up: ‘It Came from Above’ has its fusion-esque moments, and its ending on a 20-second buzz of trills and flutter-tonguing is the clearest statement of arrival yet; in ‘Cerebral Love’ the tenor takes a back seat and the musical space opens up a fraction to allow some almost naive clarinet melodies to come through; in ‘Vagueness’ everything stops at one point to allow a pointillistic drum solo, and later bass and guitar even duet in regular quavers and crotchets. Moments like these – and there are many smaller ones half-obscured throughout the record – are what the ear latches onto, and on third or fourth listening provide a way into this formidable music.
However, the question that The Nail that Stands Up leaves me with returns to that back cover declaration; I can’t help thinking that this works against, rather than for, the music’s effect. Composition like this allows for a greater organisation of form, a rehearsed deployment of material that is much harder to achieve in improvisation. The playing, and the line-up is grounded in jazz, with a flexibility of rhythm and timbre that on its own makes sense, but in context left me asking at every turn where the composition finished and the performer began. ‘There is no improvisation on this recording’ makes it clear that you are going to believe at some point that there is, and makes ‘is it or isn’t it?’ a central issue. In its lightning quick transitions from tight homophony to anywhere-but-together free stylings, the music itself asks this question with almost every passing moment. While an important, and interesting issue, I have to say it risked becoming a distraction. In the end this is a rewarding album, but much more because of what the music does, rather than what it would tell you it is.