Step Tempest “Nerve Dance” review

May 1, 2017

One often feels the need to put labels on music, especially to “understand” the intentions of the composer and performers.  If you take a close look at “Nerve Dance” (Clean Feed Records), the new release from the Michaël Attias Quartet, you see an ensemble makeup that has been central to jazz since the days of bebop – the leader on alto saxophone, pianist Aruán Ortiz, bassist John Hébert, and drummer Nasheet Waits – and they make music that hearkens back to the Keith Jarrett groups of the late 1970s and 80s. There is great group interactions, intelligent compositions that blur the lines between melody and improvisations, and an dynamism that has its roots both in the AACM and European “free music” scene.

Putting labels aside for the time-being, what one hears on “Nerve Dance” is delightful and challenging interplay that speaks to the elasticity of forms.  Nasheet Waits is amazing throughout, his drumming on several tracks, including the opening “Dark Net“, showing the influence of hip hop. His melodic work on “Nerve and Limbo“, especially in the first half, captures an intensity that one hears in Andrew Cyrille – he is central in not only moving the piece forward but in illuminating the melody.  His rhythm section mate, John Hébert, also has a wonderful melodic side, noticeable on Attias’s “Moonmouth” as well as his own “Rodger Lodger” – his counterpoint to the theme stands out and is continued throughout solos.  He also is quite a dancer as he displays his impressive moves on “Scribble Job Yin Yang“, flying above the deep piano notes of Ortiz.  The pianist is a splendid accompanist. His chordal splashes on “La Pèse-Nerfs” (taking its title from the journals of Antonin Artaud) helps the piece move out into “freer” territory, echoing the cymbal splashes of Waits. Aruán Ortiz can be gentle as well. His deliberate pace as he moves through the melody of Hèbert’s “Nasheet” allows the piece to grow up and out. Later on, when the music is more forceful, his interaction with the drummer is energetic yet thoughtful. 

Alto saxophonist and composer Attias is a fine improvisor but also an intelligent composer and arranger.  The orchestrations on pieces such as “Moonmouth” and “La Part Maudite” gives each member of the ensemble equal weight in the sound, whether it’s the piano, bass, and drums playing the melody on the latter track or how the voices move around each other on the former.  “Dream In a Mirror“, at 9:51, is the longest track. Waits open the piece with a powerful solo that folds back into itself time and again before Hébert take an equally long and majestic solo. With two short taps on the cymbal, the piano enters with the drums and plays the melody alongside the bassist.  The intensity picks up with the entrance of the alto sax.  The rhythm section creates quite a storm while Attias pushes them forward with an equally power solo.

Yes, “Nerve Dance” by The Michaël Attias Quartet may only appeal to listeners who enjoy contemporary jazz but, to give this music any one label, does it a disservice. Exploratory music is better, played by an ensemble who challenge each other and themselves to avoid cliches, to play honestly and in the moment.  The band did a short tour around the release of the CD and, hopefully, you can get to hear them live. In the meantime, this album is mighty impressive.