Stretch Your Ears

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After almost 11-and-a-half – count 'em – hours of Ken Burns's Jazz series on BBC2, it's tempting to revive that old chestnut so favoured by Fifties tweed-jacketed commentators and ask, earnestly of course, whither jazz now? Supposing that the art form manages to survive at all after such a monumental history/obituary, one can start by looking as far beyond our Ken as it's possible to get. The album By Lakes Abandoned by Carolyn Hume and Paul May (Leo Lab CD 077) may well best represent this terra incognita. Last year, the unknown British keyboards and percussion duo produced a remarkable début, Zero (also on Leo Lab), that I chose as my jazz record of the year, at least partly because it didn't sound remotely like anything else. Logically, the follow-up is fairly similar to its predecessor, with questing piano chords partnered by drum'n'bassy rhythms, but there's still nothing else on the jazz radar that comes close.

Hume plays more electronic keyboards than before, but otherwise the pattern is pretty much the same. Ambient, echo-laden, melodies slowly cohere against a background of busy, rather biscuit-tin lid, drum patterns, interrupted occasionally by the reticent clarinet of Duke Garwood or, on one track, by the voice of Sonja Galsworthy. Sometimes the music is so self-effacing that it barely exists, but the 10 tunes cast a powerful spell, none the less. Perhaps best of all is the astonishing attention to acoustic detail. Subtle effects are rendered distinctive because the musical marks are made on such a shockingly blank canvas. There's no show-offy musicianship, no self-conscious chasing of a theme, and almost no sense of jazz history whatsoever. Apparently, Hume and May just made it up themselves. And sorry Ken, they probably didn't even ask permission. The album is available from www.atlas.co.uk/leorecords.

Interestingly, the end of jazz (which Burns didn't quite get to, choosing to finish in the early 1970s) is also the end of history itself, or at least it is often interpreted as such. For more than 30 years now, free (ie totally improvised) jazz has tried to pretend that it's the very last stop on the line. The arrogance and absurdity of this view is made evident every time you hear a new free jazz album, because it always seems to sound remarkably similar to one you've heard before. The Shell Game by Tim Berne (Thirsty Ear Recordings), does try to insert a few new wrinkles into the old tapestry, with alto saxophonist Berne partnered by the electronics of Craig Taborn as well as the drums of Tom Rainey, but although Berne squawks manfully, and it's great on its own terms, there's little here that you won't recognise from the work of late Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders.

This leaves the mainstream of modern jazz, where nothing seems to change either. Thirty-four years ago, Richard Davis played the astonishing double bass parts for Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, still the best example extant of jazzy/folky fusion. Happily, Davis is still with us, and to prove it he's just released the duo set (with pianist John Hicks) of The Bassist: Homage to Diversity (Palmetto Records). Unfortunately, there's little of the fleet-fingered, "arco" playing of old, and lots of rather heavily bowed melody lines instead. But the woody sound of Davis's instrument has been captured remarkably well on a series of standards and spirituals, and for bassists, if for no one else, this is an album well worth hearing. Finally, for those wanting still more of Ken Burns's history, the 4CD set Tempus Fugue-It by Bud Powell on Proper Records can't be beat for a tenner or so. Over 86 tracks, authentically tragic bebop pianist Powell is revealed as a true master.

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