Drummer Tom Rainey doesn’t mind mayhem. He’s OK with playing imprecisely if it raises the ante in his music. And, on Camino Cielo Echo, he’s found two perfect partners in crime: guitarist Mary Halvorson and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock. But what they play is far from unilaterally assaultive. Their brains are working in conjunction with their brawn. As freewheeling as the excursions get, there’s not a moment where the trio’s intensely mutual communication isn’t apparent, where their collective intelligence doesn’t come through. As aggressive as a lot of the album sounds, it is also infused with wit and even humor. Rainey is a jagged, loose-limbed player, whose work would fit in with some of Raymond Scott’s cartoon scores. Halvorson is given to whammy bar twang and distortion. And Laubrock, perhaps the most serious-minded of the three, is still not beyond radical overblowing and the advanced use of harmonics.
The pieces are mostly short, not less than fully realized, but constructed to set a specific mood, make their point and the move on. The approach is effective because all three players are highly focused. The way a tune like “Expectation of Exception” morphs from a disjointed give-and-take exploration to a funk-driven theme that dissembles again would be impossible to achieve without a lot of close signaling. “Mullet Toss” reminds me a bit of the No-Wave innovator James Chance’s saxophone freakouts, albeit played with a lot more technical assurance. As feverish as that performance is, “Mr. and Mrs. Mundane” is correspondingly meandering (if a completely controlled track can be categorized as such). It’s hard to tell where the fusion in “Corporal Fusion” comes from. It sounds more like a game of tag between Laubrock and Halvorson with drum accompaniment.
But all the fun and games stops with the pensive “Arroyo Burrow.” Featuring Halvorson’s emotive slide guitar coupled with Laubrock’s plangent alto, this mysterious composition evokes a kind of desert beauty. It’s hard to play drums in a piece of this kind. The tendency is to decorate and embellish rather than contribute. Rainey demonstrates how it’s done right. “A Third Line into Little Miss Strange” is a terrific parody of Second Line drumming, joined by boozy tenor, growing more and more frenetic until it justâ€¦stops. Another parody, “Leapfrog” is a bebop tune gone totally wrong. It’s hilarious, with all three players pulling out the all the stops, playing at a barely sustainable tempo. Which, of course, they sustain.
The title track is a stately, very dark composition. Held in place by Halvorson’s open-sounded chords, both saxophone and drums slowly unfold, culminating in a funereal drum figure. It’s moving without being melodramatic. “Fluster” is like thrash filtered through free playing — similar to the kind of work Sonny Sharrock did with Last Exit. Rainey’s group is more variegated though, more given to irony. And, ultimately, this degree of variegation and irony is what informs the album. The players are all committed and resourceful — abundantly so — and they produce profound, jarring, and beautiful music. But they spend some of the time along the way having some fun, too. Camino Cielo Echo will hold your admiring attention through every track.