Friday, May 8, 2020

Alto saxophonist Michael Thomas explores the 'Event Horizon'

An "event horizon" is the theoretical place beyond which matter in space vanishes into a black hole. It's a clever title for an expansive exercise in small-group acoustic jazz: Stay just this side of the devouring nothingness and you have exciting matter to deal with, intelligible but on the edge.

Musings on the edge: saxophonist Michael Thomas
In the case of Michael Thomas' "Event Horizon," that edge is the Jazz Gallery in New York City, where the two-disc set was recorded last August and produced by the bandleader and Jimmy Katz, the photographer and guiding light behind Giant Steps Arts.

Eight original compositions, three of them prefaced by solo-instrument introductions, make up the program. Thomas displays a light hand compositionally, putting just enough distinctiveness into the themes to allow improvisation to flow freely from there. He enjoys the services of Jason Palmer, a trumpeter who has just issued his own two-disc set on the label, to bolster the front line. Backing them up are the bassist Hans Glawischnig and the drummer Johnathan Blake. Blake's project for Giant Step Arts, titled "Trion," was my introduction to Katz's worthy venture last year.

Thomas' compositions are gentle hooks for extensive improvisations, principally from the bandleader and Palmer. Glawischnig provides a reliable harmonic foundation, animated by rhythmic verve; he duos fruitfully with the bandleader in "Drift," then takes a meditative solo that stays consistently within the pulse.

Especially vital is the remarkable percussion energy and wisdom of Blake. His partnership with Thomas in several places brings out the keenness of the saxophonist's imagination. Considered as a duo, they sometimes drive each other to swing like mad, starting with the program-opener, "Distance."

Of the entire program, I found only "Chant" somewhat tedious, though Thomas' nearly four-minute solo intro gave me fair warning. It struck me as very fluid practice material, glibly tossed off, and when "Chant" follows, the saxophonist maintains an etude-like focus. Despite the length that Thomas permits himself and Palmer, so that variety can emerge, this was the only track where I feared mere note-spinning was about to take over.

"Dr. Teeth," the closest the band gets to a down-home feeling, is a witty, oblique reference to the late Dr. John and the New Orleans "second-line" vibe. Everyone blazes away, yet the internal rapport of the group never falters. The Thomas-Palmer partnership is perhaps at its must lustrous here, but frankly there are very few lapses from the high level the band achieves throughout more than 90 minutes of music. There's a lot of poise to tingle the listener's nerves at this event horizon.

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