All three of the musicians assembled here have impeccable free-jazz credentials, including longstanding associations with folks like Ornette Coleman, Anthony Braxton, Frank Zappa, Steve Lacy and, most importantly, one another. Although this is their first recording (set up on the fly in trombonist Bruce Fowler’s house in 2009), Bradford, Dresser and Ferris have been gigging together off and on for decades. Perhaps that’s why this music escapes some of the more predictable tropes and meandering of much “free jazz” — it’s continually purposeful, resourceful, coherent and surprising, while retaining the open-mindedness and high-wire tension and agility that makes the genre so invigorating. The ensemble is so inside each other that they hold our attention, but this is no cerebral exercise that you have to “get.” It grabs you and brings you along for some educated experimentation that is no less swinging for being highly evolved.
One of the first things that corrals you is the shifting dynamics of the brass and bass lineup. Bradford’s trumpet and Ferris’s trombone surge together with superb timing on unison phrases during “For Bradford,” “BBJC” and the closing of “In My Dream.” But just as often Ferris’s low-toned, slippery lines create a bridge between the higher trumpet and the throbbing bass, until they morph into different roles, orbiting and weaving in various combinations of solos, twos and threes. Bradford likes to splat as often as most trombonists, and Dresser’s strong-handed bass rhythms and phrases are as capable of studding notes into a string of charms as any soloing horn player.
The three songs by Ferris contain the most structure. “Purge” is a particular highlight, a Mingusian concoction of breathy, brash and bluesy colors in chromatic counterpoint that eventually spirals downward. “In My Dream,” also by Ferris, contains the most sprightly, overtly pop melody, but it is rendered with a twist, as Bradford leads and all three finish the little hooks. Of the two tunes that are collectively improvised (at least all three share songwriting credit), Dresser takes the lead on much of “Pandas Run,” varying strums and single-note plucking, then laying in some more trebly, thwacking, looser-stringed accents. “Bamboo Shoots” contains much of the classic free jazz feel I’d expected to hear, with some chimes, a spacey ambiance, Dresser bowing while the brass murmur and speak in tongues — impressionistic cacophony and rumination. It’s solid stuff, but simply doesn’t have the same compelling and commanding ebb-and-flow as the rest of the disc.
Live In L.A. arrived at a time that almost guarantees it will fall through the gap of most best-of lists — too late for serious consideration in 2011, and too early to hold prominence in 2012. But rare is the jazz disc that is more enjoyable, in any year.