To understand D.C.-area Jeff Cosgrove’s latest three-song set, “Alternating Current,” you first have to understand Paul Motian. Born in 1931, Motian was a bit of a pioneer in free-jazz drumming. Arguably his most notable work came with Bill Evans, but he played with everyone from Thelonious Monk to Keith Jarrett to even Arlo Guthrie. His approach to drums wasn’t anymore avant-garde than it was revolutionary. He took the perception of time-keeping, turned it on its head, and threw in as many non-drum sounds as he could into whatever pot he was cooking. His was an ear for the abstract, a musical heart never content with sitting still in one place until it ultimately stopped beating in 2011.
Cosgrove has been a longtime advocate of the legendary drummer, at one point leading a quartet that went by the name Motian Sickness. As he explains in the “Alternating Current” liner notes, the only composition he knew he was going to record for this most recent set was Motian’s “Victoria.” Along with Matthew Shipp on keys and William Parker on bass, they “took that song as our point of variation to see where else we could go musically.” Thus the result: A complete product of whatever came to the players’ minds as the record button lit up. Heavily rooted in improvisation, the three tracks that make up this incredible, mind-numbing release quite literally combine to form the antithesis of easy listening.
Such is said with love and admiration, of course; just know that even if you fancy yourself a hardcore jazz fanatic, there isn’t a single second within these loosely defined walls that can be taken lightly. And nor should there be: Shipp and Parker are borderline legendary in the improv world and their instinctual prowess is on top-shelf display here while Cosgrove’s decision to lurk in the background more often than not is a stroke of brilliance. Set up. Press record. Find a vibe. And get out of the way. You’ll rarely find a more organic piece of performance than the treasures buried within this map to freedom.
The most domineering moment comes from the set’s centerpiece, “Bridges Of Tomorrow.” Running nearly 40 head-spinning minutes, the parts of its sum can simply be deduced to a mere one word: breathtaking. Eased in with some stray tom-tom hits, crafty bow-work from Parker and Shipp’s stabbing piano, the first three minutes alone confirm precisely how abstract the listen is going to be. Plus, with the ominous overtones created by all three players in their separate corners, the mood is ultimately dour and dark, the sonic equivalent of a horror movie right before some type of deformed bad guy strikes.
Things pick up at about the 14-minute mark, however, when Cosgrove trades in his mallets for a pair of traditional sticks and almost — only almost, mind you — grabs hold of a groove. From that point forward, there are the tiny specks of light that glean through the curtains only momentarily before Shipp and Parker opt out of structure. It’s equally fascinating and impressive and never once does it sound like any player in the room isn’t wholeheartedly confident in whatever he does. The entire outrageously ambitious performance is a lesson in parameters, only because there aren’t any.
Lest any listener dwell for too long, though, because the title track, dedicated to drummer Andrew Cyrille (who brought the three musicians together in the first place), quickly takes hold with the help of Shipp’s haunting keys. Not to be outdone is Parker’s subliminally affective bass images that trek through this type of wilderness with pattering feet and lightning quick reflexes. Even when it submits to repetition or feel, he does so with the implication that each note in each string could change on a dime. Exhilarating is a word that’s hardly adequate.
All of this serves as the under-card, remember, for the set’s most tangible origin. “Victoria,” Motian’s 1974 classic taken from his fantastic sophomore effort “Tribute,” is world-class beauty. Shipp carries the majority of the load here, utilizing the crescendo and decrescendos with both ease and heart, and it proves to be the perfect send off for an overwhelmingly inspired album. If these five minutes and 45 seconds were what spawned everything around it, one ought to revisit Motian classics more frequently. Anyone up for a quick re-imagination of “Dance”?
If so, let’s hope Jeff Cosgrove, William Parker and Matthew Shipp are involved. Because for as complex a listen as “Alternating Current” might be, there’s no denying the amount of expertise that sits in the hands of each player. Yet perhaps more importantly, it’s impossible to question the passion these guys have for making sure the material at hand is done right by them.
So often, listeners are asked to analyze the conversations that take place in the space between instruments and their beholders. So often, listeners can catch the chemistry between each element of the performances they hear. “Alternating Current” is a textbook tome on precisely how connected three people can be, even when that connection might be mistaken for chaos as viewed through the uninterested eye. And considering how Paul Motian was once referred to as “a genius of controlled chaos,” such assessment fits these three performances as well as anything.
Suffice to say, the late drummer would be proud.
*** 3 1/2 STARS OUT OF 4 ***