I hadn't encountered Rachel Musson's music until a few months ago when I found two tracks she posted on Sound Cloud, as a foretaste of her new album Tatterdemalion (on Babel, available through bandcamp.com); these tracks are a pair of live recordings of extended electric free improvisations from a set at the Vortex in London by her trio with keyboardist Liam Noble and percussionist Mark Sanders. The performances are electric in more than one sense: they're charged up and plugged in, but they're also electrifying to hear. Musson's edgy confident tenor saxophone lines cut across thick noisy substrata, layered swathes of electroacoustic rumble and skirl produced in tandem by Noble and Sanders. Their music instantly caught and kept catching my attention, with its whelming surges of volume and space, of scrabble and hum. The studio recording on CD retains plenty of the tattering energy of the live date. As I listen through the album, I find myself more and more convinced that I am hearing an important and powerful collaboration emerging into the open.
From the outset, Musson's overtone-rich tenor hews closely to the kinds of searching tonalities that Evan Parker or John Butcher have been pursuing, but she evinces a more deliberate sense of melodic line than either of them might. Noble and Sanders create gradually thickening surges of sound underneath Musson, who has a tendency to worry at discrete phrases and figures, repeating them with incremental shifts in pitch and pace, as if she were trying to secure successive fragments of melody within an unruly welter of electronic buzz and percussive thrum. At times, the trio recalls Ellery Eskelin's longstanding group with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black. Sanders is less polyrhythmically driven than Black, less figurally definitive, his sense of pulse more distributed, organic and unresolved. A number of the intenser passages throughout the record invoke the more voluble moments of Paul Motian's trio with Joe Lovano – Musson's saxophone timbres are sometimes remarkably close to Lovano's depth of horn – and Bill Frisell's feedback-soaked, obliquely dissonant guitar: I hear echoes of "One Time Out," for example. I know Liam Noble’s playing from his collaborations with Ingrid Laubrock or from his 2009 trio outing Brubeck, an excellent tribute to the American jazz icon. But he deploys electronics here in ways that shift his personal idiom considerably, I think. The admixture of bent sine waves, feedback and what sounds like an electric piano recall some of Chick Corea’s more radical forays on the Wurlitzer in Miles Davis's 1969 quintet. Musson plays tenor on most of the seven tracks, taking out her soprano for the third piece, “The Blue Man.” While the album’s title suggests raggedy dissipation, the procedure for each section of what feels like an extended improvisational suite is similar: “The Blue Man,” for instance, begins fairly muted, the musicians coaxing their instruments forward and feeling their way into a shared soundscape. As the work expands, noise and texture start morphing into discernably shaped – shaping – sound, finding bits of intersecting, if contingent, musical form. At times meditative and withholding, as on “The Blanket Feels Woollen,” but more often building to an assertive density, this is vigorous, confident, restless, searching, extemporaneous music of a very high order.