Reviewed by Toby Wren, May 1st, 2015
Casey Golden’s music is a breath of fresh air. In some ways his music is everything you would expect from an Australian contemporary jazz release. It has virtuoso musicianship, odd metric structures and pop sensibilities, but it is also much more. Golden’s orchestrations wrest as much colour and variation out of the trio (piano, bass, drums) as one could conceivably hope for within the context. The compositions are lithe and lyrical, by turns deceptive and satisfying. The first track on the album, Flatpack Empire, has an immediacy and emotional intensity without being overwrought. It also delivers surprises for the listener. On first listening, what appeared to be a rubato piano introduction was quickly revealed to be the first statement of an intricate melody that establishes both the ensemble’s expressive potential and their rhythmic tightness. The group has been playing together for some time and this is evident in the way that they expertly traverse the compositional demands while maintaining the flexibility to interpret and interact within them.
While not necessarily a concept album, there is a unifying style and it is clear that some thought has gone into the album-as-composition. For example, the quintuplet theme that closes the first track becomes the initial statement of the second, the title track Outliers. Outliers plays as a variation on a theme, but leads into new compositional territory, both more lyrical and more intense. Overall there is a sense of trajectory, as the album explores a range of territories that build towards the penultimate track. Recluse borrows harmonically from popular music bringing to mind Mehldau’s various arrangements, for example Largo. The repeating chord progression and half-time feel provide a welcome contrast to the complexity that has taken us to that point but at the same time the compositional logic means that this opening out does not feel out of place.
Rhythmically, Golden and trio are all over it, not only in terms of playing and soloing on some pretty demanding grooves, but in ways that are less predictable, such as the frequent use of tempo/metric modulation and effective group rallentandi and accelerandi. The overall effect is quite controlled, which left me wondering how the same materials are translated in a live setting. The consistent dilemma for this kind of rhythmically diverse and complex contemporary jazz is that it forces the musicians to walk a line between accurate representation of the score and the kind of dynamic interaction that we expect of jazz. The approach here is to alternate between soloistic, frequently free, improvisations and more structured compositional sections. While it is an effective strategy, the question is whether the group is pulling some punches for the sake of compositional fidelity. But this is more of a question for contemporary complexist jazz than for Golden specifically, a part of my ongoing reflection on the idiom. This should not dissuade the reader from buying the album. Outliers is a mature statement from a young Australian improviser with a distinctive and engaging vision.