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John Gruntfest - alto sax |
Sybl Glebow - drums |
Cheryl Schwartz - tenor sax |
Bill Crossman - piano |
Jim Flam - tenor sax |
Yancie Taylor - vibraphone |
Jan Labate - alto sax |
JA Deane - trombone

This live recording from 1989 of Gruntfest's long running group (1982-1991) is my favorite Gruntfest record right now. Don't know who Gruntfest is? Join the club. Gruntfest is one of the
unsung originals in a genre rife with them. Gruntfest has been playing free music on saxophone since at least the late 1970s. His unique approach to the horn involves a laser tone of such purity that there's no breath in the attack or finish and it's difficult to tell what instrument you're hearing at times. Also, though he brings the noise without hesitation, his work is filled with melodies (some times composed ahead of time, sometimes appearing spontaneously) largely based on major scales (to these ears anyway). Add to this his frequent use of the altissimo register in a full and beautiful tone and you've got a truly unique player.
Though I've had this particular disc for a few years, I've only recently realized what a gem it is.
The first track is a short sax solo that Gruntfest starts far off stage with blasting high notes that quickly morph into some pretty melodies that feature altissimo playing that is impressively incorporated into the melodies. This is followed with some sax pyrotechnics, skronking and screaming before a sudden end.

The 2nd track is a long improvisation with a lot of nice sax & piano (I think it must be an electric piano) interaction. Then there's an interesting vibe solo followed by a horns build that falls apart into a drum-sax duo. There's some more nice group playing and then a trombone solo with a good deal of power & nuance. More group playing follows marking the most chaotic moment so far. This dissipates into a more reserved section of group playing that seems to flirt with a structured melody before committing to a bouncy version of Mac the Knife. When Mac the Knife ends the group immediately launches into another tune with a repetitive, 9-note melody. This melody is used as a bridge to get the group into Space is the Place. On the way there the group improvises on the first melody as it merges with the 2nd. At one point about half the group is playing off one and the half the other. Space is the Place dissolves quickly into a slow, minimal percussion, unison, melodic riff. This shifts into a more jerking & driving melody with sax solos over it which then ends all-together. This is a really fun piece that gives enough time to each section while not dwelling so long as to become boring. The songs they embed in the piece work really well and are very satisfying for the listener without snuffing out the improv.
The 3rd track is really several songs that are lumped together as one track. It opens with a tune that sounds like classic Gruntfest: major scale, repetitive but with alternating melodic lines & improvisation happening around the band throughout the tune. A few minutes in, Gruntfest lets loose with some screaming high notes and I'm again amazed at how clear those tones are. The band then goes back to a tight repetition of the head before it ends on a dime. Following this is another tune that is equally fun. The tune goes through a few permutations with different melodies and then a unison ending. A high energy improv follows that rides up and down in intensity a couple of times until the end. This track is great for the way it features Gruntfest's ensemble writing. This kind of music is satisfying to me - someone who loves the really bombastic end of improv as well as my partner, who heard this playing in my car and said she would love to see this band play live. She's generally not much of a free jazz listener.
Gruntfest is a unique voice in free jazz who should be heard by more people. I'm not sure if this is the CD to start with but knowing Gruntfest's music, the CD has become a real joy to listen to for me. Perhaps start with one of his more recent recordings and then tryout this one? But if you do check it out, or already have, let me know.

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