From Eric Dolphy’s 1963 gem of a record, all the way to Stanton Moore’s set of the same name this April, jazz cats have been using the word “conversations” to title their albums for almost as long as the genre has existed (which at this point spans beyond a century). It’s a term as common in the jazz medium as the word “groove” is in soul or the word “heavy” is in metal. These guys don’t talk with letters — they speak with notes. Intonations. Syncopation. They can walk into a room and begin speaking without ever uttering a word.
Sometimes, the result is electrifying (if you need proof, check out the second volume of Miles Davis’ “Live in Europe” bootleg series, when his quintet slaughtered their way through a set that makes you sweat just thinking about it). Sometimes, the result is confusing (remember all those times you heard people whine about how they don’t “get” jazz music? Chances are they stumbled through countless “conversations” they just couldn’t stomach). And sometimes … .
… Well, sometimes the result is refreshing. Local(ish) drummer Steve Olson accomplishes this with his latest addition to the “Conversations” catalog, a 15-track set that also serves as his first as a leader. Here’s how it works: Each performance is done live. Each performance features Olson and one other artist. And each performance is, of course, completely improvised, a single snippet of a musical dialogue between drummer and horn. Or drummer and bass. Or drummer and woodwind. Or drummer and … wait for it … drummer.
It’s fascinating stuff if you have the patience for it. Some of the takes work better than others, but even the ones that take a while to warm up to are worth a 10th or 100th listen. The most immediate victories are the obvious ones. “Drop the Sticks!” is a whirlwind of fun, Dave Ballou’s trumpet fabulously complementing the rudimentary patterns of Olson’s stick work (including a moment when you can hear him actually drop drum sticks). By the time the final 20 seconds come around and the two achieve lockstep, you suddenly realize you won’t find a more thrilling climax throughout any of the other 14 performances.
But that’s not to say any of those other 14 performances aren’t captivating in their own ways. The near-seven-minute “Breath of Life,” with Todd Marcus’ bass clarinet, creates space and ambiance with a slow burn as Marcus stabs and laments through the drummer’s pitter-patter. Book-ended by sound effects and ride cymbals, it’s like walking through a forest at 3 a.m. alone and ready to run. The pair’s other offering, “Around the World,” catches the ear equally as attentive, Olson’s repetition providing a great backdrop for the clarinetist’s statement.
Sure, there are times when the idea crosses into unnecessary territory. Closer “They’re So Nice” lacks the fire heard elsewhere while “Smacks” never quite finds the footing it so clearly wants to establish. And yeah, if you think you’re sitting down with any modicum of accessibility, you’ll most likely be wondering what’s so special about a bunch of abstract sounds coming together under one roof.
Yet even though this might not necessarily be a drummer’s take on “Kind of Blue,” it still has layers of value as long as you’re willing to dig. Olson’s talks with fellow stick-man Tony Martucci are downright addicting for a drummer’s ear. “He Says Yes” even manages to find some modicum of a groove, the dichotomy of the ride cymbals and hi-hats combining with the percussive runs felt throughout is spellbinding at its core. Another Olson/Martucci collaboration, “Are We Swingin’?,” is more delicate but no less engrossing.
And engrossing is probably the most acute way to sum up all of Steve Olson’s “Conversations” anyway. Because just like any verbal interaction you might share with another human being, these are the kinds of improvisations that make you think more with each listen. What you hear the first time around will not be the same thing you hear the fifth time. Likewise for the 10th, and so on and so forth. The more you engage, the more you learn, the more you understand. It’s like making a new friend, as the more you discover about your counterpart, the more interesting he or she becomes.
It all adds up to a series of truly great and truly revealing forms of discussion that those with voices should only be so lucky to one-day share.
*** 3 STARS OUT OF 4 ***