Peter Van Huffel's Gorilla Mask's "Howl!"
I've been a fan of free jazz since the mid-'70s. The first Coltrane record I bought was Ascension. That said, I'm aware that the style can often be more fun to play than it is to listen to, occasionally veering into the realm of "music as endurance contest" -- a place nobody wants to visit.
All of which makes this latest release by altoist Peter Van Huffel, a Canadian expat living in Berlin, extremely welcome. Van Huffel's a saxophonist out of Ayler, Brotzmann, and Zorn, his sound all braying vibrato and squealing multiphonics, but he frames his improvisational forays in the context of a trio with hard rock dynamics -- on the surface, just your standard post-Rollins bass 'n' drums, but with a penchant for repeating patterns and overlaid electronic noise elements. Further, on Howl!, they program their cataclysmic blasts in manageable chunks: the tracks average six minutes and change -- a lot easier to process than, say, some of Brotzmann's hour-long exorcisms.
"Legendarious" opens with sampled noise, giving way to a tense ostinato that showcases the interplay between bassist Roland Fidezius and drummer Rudi Fischerehner. Van Huffel makes his entrance with a solo that refers to the theme before careening off into ecstatic flurries. When the theme is repeated at the end of his ride, the noise returns as well. On the tribal-sounding dirge "Z," bass and drums hammer away at a simple syncopated pattern while the leader sounds a few opening blasts (summoning the muse?), joins in for a moment, then takes off on a circuitous journey. When the rhythm section unexpectedly breaks into what sounds like the Panzer tank-like groove from White Zombie's "Thunder Kiss 1965," Van Huffel follows their tangent without breaking stride.
"Dirty City" starts as a mutated shuffle, over which Van Huffel churns up a shitstorm of vibrato-laden long tones before skittering off into his upper register. As his improvisation builds to a complexity, so does the rhythm section's backing; when he melts down into end-of-the-world skirls and skitters, they up the intensity even further. "Fucked" works off the juxtaposition of Van Huffel's tortuous line with the bedrock simplicity of the tune's insistent backbeat, even when the drums take off into orbit and the sax locks in with the bass. And there are quiet moments here, too, such as the closing "Angry Monster," which starts out deceptively sedate before the electronics and arco bass spiral up into pure white noise.
Overall, Van Huffel and his men have given us an engaging new way of hearing freeblow, in much the same way as Neneh Cherry and The Thing did on their debut disc. Damn, it looks like I'm going to have to revise my year-end Top 10 list when the Village Voice comes calling...