European avant-garde drumming is much different than its US idiomatic counterpart. This partially explains why American players, accustomed to hearing drummers who largely restrict themselves to the conventional sticks-on-drumhead, pulse-based approach, have so seldom chosen to collaborate with European-born players. The best of the European percussionists tend to regard what they do more holistically; there’s more ornamentation, a lighter touch, and more focus on a second-by-second response than on steadiness. Setting up a groove – even a disjointed one – isn’t a vital concern.
Paul Lytton has a trebly, quicksilver approach that values filigree and response in about equal measure. He’s a quiet drummer, but a dynamic one. In trumpeter Nate Wooley, an American approximately 30 years his junior, Lytton has found an extroverted partner. Nevertheless, these are decidedly two-way conversations; Lytton is present throughout the dialogue, as he is on the trio tracks with reed player Ken Vandermark and electronics/vocal improviser Ikue Mori.
The Nows consists of two albums, eight lengthy pieces in total, none of it exactly easy going. Both Lytton and Wooley take what would ordinarily be considered “extended” parts of their instruments’ vocabulary as simply standard language for them. There is, however, logic to everything they play: “The Ripple Effect” works, if abstractly, off of nearly countable time, and Vandermark’s sax maintains a pretty conventional ostinato. Wooley’s toolbox of sounds isn’t so much different than Bubber Miley’s would have been in Duke Ellington’s late-’20s band; the big difference is context. A performance like “Abstractions and Replication” couldn’t have existed until recently, however, at least in part due to the technological demands that Ikue Mori’s electronics require. But even this intellectually taxing material is now making it presence felt in the work of groundbreakers like Tyshawn Sorey, Craig Taborn and Ingrid Laubrock. The best way to approach The Nows might be to hear it in terms of a totality of atmosphere, a living, breathing forest of small sounds, where every gesture has meaning and nothing goes unobserved.