March 2, 2017
Methodical design, rough-and-tumble play, and thoughtful exchange are often viewed as mutually exclusive concepts in jazz. Saxophonist Michaël Attias’ Nerve Dance, however, obliterates that line of thinking and any potential obstacles that could separate those realms. This is a work that’s cultured, contumacious, and conversational in nature. It’s principled art unbound.
Nerve Dance introduces a new quartet that consistently exhibits certain traits while also presenting differently from angle to angle and piece to piece. In many places, it’s a mighty foursome that triumphs by putting near-equal emphasis on compositional rigor and free thinking. Attias, pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Nasheet Waits often build strict designs with completely open floor plans, essentially allowing for freedom within designated spaces. The album opener—”Dark Net”—is as good a song as any to display that wonderful contradiction. Bass and melody are intertwined and the entire piece develops as an orgiastic corkscrew, twisting (or bounding) from side to side in wondrously punchy fashion. There’s never any doubt that the framework is solid, but the interior spaces are difficult to measure and define. “Scribble Job Yin Yang,” part of a collection of pieces that Attias wrote on the New York City subway, puts the same line of thinking into a free bop mindset. Think Bird on an unhinged wire. And “Dream In A Mirror” does much of the same with Ornette Coleman’s “Clergyman’s Dream,” creating a reflection in minor that serves as a threnody to one of jazz’s major figures.
Numbers like those tend to get the synapses firing fastest, but even the most measured material on the program has a way of making dendrites dance. “Moonmouth,” for example, is controlled but unsettling, and Hébert’s balladic “Rodger Lodge” manages to delight with an underlying shimmy-shake. Both are proudly paradoxical in nature, nodding to intellectual curiosity and certitude at the same time. This may be the most pliable and self-assured quartet to emerge in recent times. It’s certainly one of the most creative. Nerve Dance manages to operate equally well on visceral and cerebral planes. It’s a musical livewire that provides joy to the ears and a jolt to the system.