Alister Spence, Joe Williamson and Christopher Cantillo
Improvisation, Jazz
Alister Spence Music (ASM003)
Reviewed by , December 1st, 2015

This is the first release from the new trio of Australian pianist Alister Spence, Canadian bassist Joe Williamson and Swedish drummer Christopher Cantillo.

Meeting at the crossroads of jazz and free improvisation, the musical sympathy and connection between Spence, Williamson and Cantillo is extremely strong (they have been playing together since 2009). The thirteen improvisations on Begin range in length from two to nine minutes, and they very often seem like complete ‘compositions’ – one or two ideas are explored and, often, quite deliberately resolved. While the textural and rhythmic approach to improvisation is almost always present in some way, melody, both angular and lyrical, is never completely relinquished.

The three players each take turns to generate energy and ideas, although there is something about the harmonic presence and sonic weight of Spence and Williamson in the ‘unfolding’ or formative stages of many of the tracks, combined with their offerings of melody at different stages, which makes them seem like the forward-facing personalities of the group. Often Williamson is the harmonic and rhythmic stalwart of an idea (much like Lloyd Swanton in the Necks), Spence offers melodic beauty and chordal drama, and Cantillo fills in the detail of the picture with pointillist flair.

In some ways it feels like the tracks with more ponderous and dark atmospherics (and which often have more sedentary tempos) are stronger, allowing the melodic, harmonic and textural characters of the three players to shine through. More kinetic pieces, such as Drop, are shorter in duration, but the energy they possess balances perfectly with the lyrical and dramatic elements of Begin. Often these restless periods are resolved into moments that emphasise the togetherness of the players: they are really listening to each other.

Spence’s lyrical abilities are at the forefront of these improvisations, most beautifully on Hang, Allow, or on the opening track Slant, where a simple piano melody emerges from zither-like sounds produced by directly strumming the piano strings. On Let Spence plays delicately impressionistic lines while Williamson and Cantillo thrum away industriously. This track, the exact mid-point of the album, is a microcosm for the kind of energy and colour of the whole.

I particularly liked it when a spacey reverb effect is added to Spence’s piano, a move that enables the higher register to ring out. On Allow the airiness of the piano forms a spectral cluster of high sounds (although I’m not sure what the other sound source is, perhaps Cantillo is bowing a cymbal or bell?). The re-entry of Williamson’s bass here adds tension and gravity to the soundscape, drawing Spence’s piano downwards.
I loved it. Williamson would get caught in wonderfully rugged and repetitive figures, such as what he plays in the middle of the final track, Circle. Spence’s improvisation takes on an excited character, and Cantillo slightly lifts the intensity of what he is doing. Another highlight was the second last track, Knock, a rumbling and rolling soundscape held together by the agile and percussive interaction of the three players. It has just the right amount of frenetic energy, high and low register, and ebb and flow of intensities.

It is always nice (and rare) when a group of players are so together that it’s almost impossible to tell who is making what sound. I hope Begin is the start of a lasting musical collaboration between these excellent players.

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