In Brooklyn, as with Chicago, improvising ensembles are comparable in number to tadpoles teeming in a pond. It’s a condition of the creative explosion that continues to sustain both communities. Nate Wooley, Reuben Radding and Mary Halvorson are poster people for the idea that diversification staves off artistic stasis. A thick chunk of the liners to their self-titled Hat debut covers the tangled taxonomic tree of projects and associations shared by the three. There’s no point summarizing it here as readers are no doubt familiar with the names and activities of many of the branches. These three players are in the midst of hectic careers with listeners continuing to take notice in growing droves.
Crackleknob’s success stems in large part from the balance of group concept and contrastive individual expression. All three members live and breathe their instruments –trumpet, bass and guitar– inside and out. Each has a strong and colorful personality to channel and the fluency to ensure that nothing is lost in translation. Halvorson handles her huge custom arch-top with a surety at odds with its size and her small frame. Her command of dynamics, in particular, suggests a master class, slipping from ceiling-clinging harmonics that approximate the sound of boots crunching broken light bulb glass to hard bass register picking that rivals Radding’s reach. Cleanly eliding single note runs suggest a ghost print of Joe Morris, a mentor, but she’s long since escaped any semblance of imitation assuming there ever their was one. Radding ranges all over his fingerboard, stacking plump bobbing notes against razor-wire bow play. One moment he’s politely keeping out of Halvorson’s way, the next, wrestling with her in a crisscross of bent strings. Wooley brings his complete bag of acoustic tricks too, setting up rustling drones that sound like interstitial static between radio stations one second and dialing in on Cool-toned jazz lyricism the next.
All ten pieces are collectively improvised, showing off symmetry of execution that immediately conjures the illusion of composition. Titles borrow from Adorno’s critical theory text Minima Moralia, and carry the boiled down wit of chapter headings. The associative music is similarly succinct with most tracks occupying close to pop song length and sounding not the least bit worse off for their economy. “Chamber improv” is a tempting adjectival tag for the sort of sounds these three traffic in, particularly given their combination of instruments and the tinder-dry music they devise. It’s also a hopelessly inadequate summation; one pointing to how Crackleknob and the host of other ensembles these three players are involved are rewriting the book on improvisatory jazz and gradually earning a bestseller listenership in the bargain.
[Originally published 7/7/09 @ Bagatellen]