Ken Thomson and Slow/Fast, Settle

Seth Colter Walls

By Seth Colter Walls

on 09.23.14 in Reviews

Alto saxophonist, clarinetist and composer Ken Thomson has been a key part of New York’s contemporary music scene for years, and was a founder of the Asphalt Orchestra (otherwise known as the Lincoln Center street marching band that can play Björk, Mingus and Meshuggah). But in recent months, Thomson has become a force of nature. Around the same time he was inducted into the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Thomson’s album with the JACK Quartet, Thaw, drew a rave from Steve Reich.

A satisfying variety of thematic material, touching on modes both tender and strident

All that was left for him to do was to step up his jazz ensemble game, which is just what he and his sometimes-swinging, often-improvising group Slow/Fast do with this release. While the band’s 2010 debut was promising, at times it could feel as though its execution of an avant-prog-jazz splatter aesthetic was more important than any of the tunes on offer.

Settle fixes that problem. Though the opening title track naturally delivers plenty of crunchy guitar grind, courtesy of rising star Nir Felder, it doesn’t dominate. There’s also a lyrical statement on alto, from Thomson, to kick things off. And by bringing in the swing feel, here and there, drummer Fred Kennedy helps avoid the stiff, martial nature that can creep in to any piece with this many tricky changes. Elsewhere, there’s a satisfying variety to Thomson’s thematic material, which touches on modes both tender and strident (listen in particular to the parts for his own axe and Russ Johnson’s trumpet).

The interplay between Thomson and Johnson is also a highlight on “We Are Not All in This Together,” which has the bandleader on bass clarinet. It’s a potent one-two kickoff to an album that, even if it can’t quite keep up that same level of inspiration throughout, manages to put forward yet another compelling side of Thomson’s compositional mind.