Giant Beauty

The music of late American bassist Ahmed Abdul-Malik provide a jumping off point for the improvising group on this five CD boxset of live material recorded at 2022’s Edition Festival in Stockholm

About two thirds into ‘Nights On Saturn’, Antonin Gerbal’s frenetic kick drum/snare polyrhythms and Joel Grip’s pulsing bass lines find themselves locked in a pattern so dynamic, so recklessly dashing that it begins to resemble a black metal blast beat. Between them, Seymour Wright’s saxophone and Pat Thomas’s piano sound on the brink of losing control, first sputtering hasty, broken phrases, then trying to upend each other in a series of mirrored, stabbing vamps. In what is likely one of the most gripping segments of music released this year, the intensity of playing rises to supernova levels. Then, like always, the group find an elegant way out, dispersing the accumulated energy into a sequence of lighter, meandering phrases, ultimately ending up in a passage of lovely modal jazz. Moments like these make [Ahmed] one of the most mind-blowing free jazz and improvisation groups in the world today.

Formed about ten years ago as an extension of Thomas, Gerbal, and Grip’s unconventional piano trio [Ism] (who also have an ace new album Maua out on 577 Records), [Ahmed] base all of their sets around the music of Ahmed Abdul-Malik. While the influence of the late US double bassist and oud player extends beyond just music in the quartet’s work, touching upon philosophical, political, and spiritual spheres, their journeys are much freer than just covers of his tunes. Abdul-Malik’s pieces serve as thematic anchor points, but each performance sees the players deconstruct, rearrange, reshape, and build up again their motifs in diverse ways, reacting to internal and external feedback loops in the process.

Take the aforementioned ‘Nights On Saturn’, for example. The version featured on Giant Beauty – a five CD box set released by John Chantler’s Fönstret label – was recorded on the first night of a five-day run at The Fifth Edition Festival for Other Music in August 2022. Compared to the previous recorded version that appeared on 2021’s Nights On Saturn (on Astral Spirits), this new live cut overflows with a sense of nervous anticipation and unbridled power, perhaps spurred on by the heatwave enveloping Sweden at the time or simply revealing the pent-up energy and excitement leading to the performance.

As Wright reveals to Chantler in an interview for the book accompanying the release, the group would reflect on the experiences of each day before the next concert. So when ‘Oud Blues’ rolls in on the second night, the performance feels tempered – even reserved when compared to the take releasing soon as Wood Blues on Astral Spirits – with a more direct focus and less chaotic energy present in each of the instrumentalists’ individual playing, but also a clearer structure in their collective interactions. Here, the group explores nuanced atmospheric directions, delving into lyrical blues sections and swinging romps. Whoever thinks that contemporary free jazz cannot be danced to, should really listen to this.

As its name suggests, ‘African Bossa Nova’ is equally danceable, propelled by Thomas’s emphatic piano grooves and Wright’s swirling, stuttering low register licks that feel like watching a couple passionately swaying on the dancefloor of a smoke filled club. Meanwhile, ‘El Haris (Anxious)’, whose earlier rendition can be heard on 2017’s New Jazz Imagination, and the previously unpublished ‘Rooh (The Soul)’ see [Ahmed] entertaining decidedly more textural, almost droning figures. As the group imply, this change of direction might have been influenced by experiencing the performances of Éliane Radigue’s Occam works, which were programmed in parallel to their concerts at the festival. Regardless of their genesis, these closing sets give the quartet an opportunity to showcase another facet of their work, trading ferocious tension for a quieter, simpler kind of beauty. An utter triumph.

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