[Howl! Arts Collective; 2012]

Brahja Waldman has a rare gift among modern jazz composers. He is able to successfully interject a feeling of spontaneity into his compositions. But let me clarify that statement a bit. Jazz is of an inherently improvisational nature, but there are often instances where the music seems to be on rails, where every brush stroke and sax squeal seems oddly predetermined – when in reality the exact opposite is true. But we expect jazz to be of a particular temperament, and so our assumptions guide our opinion of the music to a large degree. And as the truly great jazz tunes tend to vary in their musical approach and never seem to rely on any one set of rhythmic aesthetics, there is a wide margin between artists who simply know how to play their instruments and those who know why these instruments and techniques actually work so well together.

On Cosmic Brahjas/Closer to the Tones, the new double album under the Brahja Waldman’s Quartet moniker, Waldman has recruited a veritable who’s-who of Montreal and New York jazz musicians – including pianist Shadrach Hankoff, tenor saxophonist Adam Kinner, bassist Martin Heslop, drummer Daniel Gelinas, and himself on alto sax. And as is often the case, much of the rhythmic inventiveness of the music comes directly from the way in which these guys feed off each other in the studio. At different points across both records, each musician gets a chance to stand alone (somewhat) and give an intimate performance that seems to be directed pointedly at each individual listener, as if the band were catering to every person who happened to be listening to these songs. And it’s this sense of communal inclusion and active participation that keeps these recordings from simply becoming homogenous scores for piano, sax, bass, and drums. But more often the not, the band rises to a cathartic churn through a dynamic and extraordinary reliance on each other, and this clustered musical mentality allows these two records to unfurl and bloom in unpredictable jazz expulsions.

There are often obvious reasons for artists to release double albums under different album titles – each record could offer separate thematic approaches to the same ideas or perhaps the band simply felt that each set of songs told insular stories, though possibly connected in some subtle way. For Waldman, Cosmic Brahjas andCloser to the Tones are devices through which he and his quartet can explore the ways in which different instruments interact with each other. The biggest differences being that Cosmic Brahjas incorporates piano into its composite rhythms while Closer to the Tones completely forgoes the piano and opts instead for the brash timbre of a tenor saxophone.

Brahjas opening track, “Intro,” does in fact do exactly that – functioning as a roster call for the musicians to introduce themselves. It’s an opening jazz salvo, replete with twinkling Guaraldi-esque piano notes, a shuffling backbeat, layers of thick bass, and squelching sax runs. And while it is far too short (as introductions tend to be), it does act as a melodic warm up for the band – and for us. “Wise Love” is our first real taste of the rhythmic depths that the band effortlessly mines. It’s fascinating and more than slightly stunning to hear the band weave their way together in a coordinated mass of thrumming bass and sharp percussion, not to mention the comprehensive examination of the mercurial relationship between piano and alto saxophone.

But it’s on “My Heart Is A Real Thing” that the band really hits its stride – and the peak of their lively tonal interaction. Inspired by a poem from Bob Holman, the musicians create an energetic atmosphere of impulsiveness and unexpected movement, while repeating the line, “my heart is a real thing” – which becomes something of a mantra during the course of the song. Other tracks like “The Naked Dao” and “Cosmic Dance” have an almost psychedelic feel to them, with instruments contorting into unusual and remarkable positions within the track’s loose framework. Cosmic Brahjas definitely has a more experimental tint than Closer To The Tones, but to be honest, that’s a somewhat untenable description as this genre is rife with music that strains against convention while incorporating surprisingly innovative aesthetics. But for the purposes of comparing these two records, it works about as well as anything.

On Closer To The Tones, Waldman — with the addition of tenor saxophonist Adam Kinner and the loss of pianist Shadrach Hankoff — delve deeply into the heart of traditional jazz, with a few minor detours. And while Cosmic Brahjas may be more initially interesting, it’s Closer To The Tones that feels far more in depth and steeped in the storied history of the genre. Tracks like “Victoria Day” and “Elliott” often veer dangerously close to the mainstream rhythms common to swing jazz, but the band twists and shapes these sounds into something more closely resembling the soundtrack to some gaudy, 1930’s speakeasy than the banal repetition of some modern jazz resurgence. But similar in execution to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, the band plies these long-held traditions with an eye toward the future — toward some amalgamated potential that has yet to be explored.

And while there isn’t a track so wonderfully imaginative as “My Heart Is A Real Thing” on Closer To The Tones, there are tracks such as “Pleistocene” and “Interpretation” that stretch the limits of the individual musicians, and you can practically hear the song pulling apart at the seams. But just when you think the song can’t take any more, it exhales and expands allowing the band room to continue their tonal extrapolations without restriction. Their dedication to the intricate interplay between each other comes to the fore here, as the songs bask in tradition while creating new byways into the last 60 years of jazz music. It’s an ambitious undertaking but Waldman and his fellow musicians seem more than capable of pulling it off — though there is a bit of musical fatigue that sets in after spending time dissecting and absorbing 19 tracks of concentrated rhythmic experimentation.

Is it a demanding experience to a certain degree? I would say yes, and the experience of wading this deep and this long into waters that may be unfamiliar to some listeners will likely be a bit overwhelming. But with records like Cosmic Brahjas and Closer To The Tones, there is no prerequisite knowledge of the genre needed. As intensive and exhaustively traversed as this music is, it could still be considered a great starting point for someone who isn’t intimately aware of the directed convolution common to jazz music. These songs never come across as exclusive and the music welcomes the attention and active association of its listeners. Brahja Waldman and his musical conspirators may not be as well known as the legacy makers of the ’50s and ’60s, but the dual percussive punch of Cosmic Brahjas/Closer To The Tones places them firmly at the forefront of the modern jazz landscape.