By Robert Rodi
Sun Speak is a pair of young free-jazz players, Chicagoans Matt Gold (guitar) and Nate Friedman (drummer). Despite their relative youth, the pair have been working together for long enough to develop the kind of telepathy you find only in the most accomplished duos, and their new EP, “Sacred Rubble,” is filled with ideas that bounce between them faster than you can register on first listening. From the opening cut—“Solar Beast”—they manage to sound like a much larger ensemble, not only by the density and energy of their playing, but by a judicious use of multi-tracking. Though in fact this first cut does also boast a single guest, sax player Ben Schmidt-Swartz, who’s also used with admirable restraint. After a coolly lilting guitar theme, the drums barrel in to give the line a sudden, driving insistence. The sax picks up the theme, giving it a new, more reflective resonance—but the drums don’t let up, so that in his searing, blitzkrieg solo, Schmidt-Swartz’s playing has a life-or-death urgency to it, like he’s trying to outrun a lava flow that’s hot on his heels. The drums eventually fade, leaving that gorgeous theme upfront again—though this time taken up by both guitar and sax. It’s a ravishing ride.
The other five tracks are sparer, but show an impressively wide stylistic range. “Fog” is an infectious ballad whose melodic line rides elegantly over some furious beating by Friedman, and whose bridge is both plaintive and pretty. And yes, I’m using that word approvingly; I flailed around for a synonym before realizing that it is in fact legitimately pretty, and there’s nothing goddamn wrong with that. We could use more of it in modern jazz. “Juna” plays like a classical Spanish guitar piece that resolves into a languid dance. “Egg” opens with a dissonant chord, like a foghorn on a pea-soup sea, cutting against some wave-choppy percussion; then the clouds part and a beam of melody trickles down. (For whatever reason, this album suggests more visual metaphors than I’m normally used to.) The final track, “Unalaska,” is at first contemplative, even awestruck—as if in the face of something immense. It builds to a contentious call-and-response, like each player has come to a different conclusion about something vital and is desperately trying to persuade the other; but then the manic energy goes out of the argument, and they lapse into a kind of dizzying accord.
These five pieces left me wanting more; and the guys are reportedly in the studio, making that happen. In the meantime, join me in giving this one another spin, or two, or thirty.
“Sacred Rubble” is available through the usual channels and on ears & eyes records’ website.
Where the young players of Sun Speak strive for profundity, the more mature members of Chicago’s Josh Berman Trio—Jason Roebke on bass, Frank Rosaly on drums and Berman himself on cornet—direct their own inestimable energies at sounding effortless. Their new album, “A Dance and A Hop,” lives up to the giddy casualness of the title; every tune seems designed to delight. Berman, as befits his frontman status, is the most indelible presence here; his cornet is recorded very close—much more so than the bass or drums, who seem to lurk somewhere in the general block-and-a-half behind him; but he’s got such control over his dynamics, you never feel overwhelmed by his nearness. There’s a sense, rather, of confidence—of someone, not quite whispering, but muttering juicy confidences in your ear.
“Hang Ups” is an audacious choice for an opening cut; there’s no intro—we’re just tossed right into a mid-tempo swing, with a cornet line that’s loose, slurring and rhythmically wobbling (the bass doubles it now and then, so you know it’s not entirely improvised). It gives the exact feeling of walking home after having had one too many, with yet one more not entirely out of the question if you happen to pass an open door. “Blues” is much more confident—it swaggers; there’s a sense of being on the make. The cornet’s voice here is all hey-baby-let-me-show-you-my-etchings, but resolves into a gassy section where Berman blows too hard in a hey-don’t-go-what’d-I-say kind of desperation; but the effect is comic, not tragic. I’m not sure where “blues” comes into this piece; the effect is mischievous, not morose.
Other highlights: “Luggage” features an extended drum solo that’s a kind of extra-fancy soft-shoe routine, punctuated by a single repeated bass note and with a brief cornet commentary at the end. Very charming. “Bridges” boasts one of Berman’s most winning performances; he just keeps reeling out phrase after phrase of cocky, charismatic melody. At one point you hear one of the other players blurt out an affirming, “Yeah!” “Today’s Date” has a kind of boozy, pillow-talk line—echoed by stuttering performances by both Roebke and Rosaly. It’d make for a witty closer; but that spot goes to “Cold Snap,” in many ways the most conventional cut; the melodic line is more straightforward than its predecessors. You can easily imagine a set of lyrics slapped onto it, and a singer giving it a go. Not that this is a suggestion; Berman, Roebke and Rosaly clearly have plenty to say without someone gumming up the lines of communication with actual words.
“A Dance and a Hop” is available through the usual channels and on Delmark Records’ website.
Robert Rodi is an author, spoken-word performer and musician who has served as Newcity’s Music Editor since 2014. He’s written more than a dozen books, including the travel memoir “Seven Seasons In Siena.” His jazz quintet recently completed a two-year residency at Uncommon Ground, and he regularly hosts a jazz singers’ jam at Lizard’s Liquid Lounge. His literary and music criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Salon, The Huffington Post and many other national and regional publications.