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Toxic - This is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People [ESP Disk - 2017]

Toxic is a modern free jazz trio consisting of sax and wind player Mat Walerian, pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker, who apparently hasn't been in the studio since he appeared on Frank Lowe recordings in the 60's.  This new album, entitled "This Is Beautiful Because We Are Beautiful People" is the group's first release, though Walerian and Shipp have been quite active in recent years, including some previous collaborations with each other.

This is certainly the kind of album that leaves me pondering what music is and what makes it enjoyable (or not).  With a sort of sparse, sleepy, anti-rhythmic floundering, the musicians highlight the boundless, heavy silence between their notes, stubbornly remaining in gridless space, dissipating each hint of a pattern back into nothingness before continuing.

Sickly dissonances are allowed to linger often, pianist Matthew Shipp striking a couple of notes, then pausing for his bandmates' response.  There is a Morton Feldman-esque hesitance between each of his actions.  William Parker has a delicate yet agile touch on the string bass, restlessly walking in irregular chromatic steps.

Glimpses of great technical and melodic skill appear from time to time, spasmatic fragments of melody stubbornly disconnected from any context.  At times, it seems the musicians forget for a moment they aren't playing traditional jazz, and sweet, soulful tunefulness emerges for a second, only to be squashed.  It's strange, to me, how they limit themselves.

The dynamic range is decidedly 'mezzo forte or lower'.   There is no overt aggression or anger to be found here, though perhaps  a resigned, measured frustration.  A friend of mine recently said to be me that if free jazz could be said to express any tangible emotion, it is that of 'drudgery', that daily struggle through the discomfort of the mundane towards our ideals and desires.  The vague discomfort of this album describes this drudgery, refusing to remove from its description of living the boredom, the physical pain, the confusion.

The general sluggishness and massive length of this album make it a very difficult listen, but I don't think it's without content or value.  It is simply for dedicated fans of free jazz/improvisation, with long attention spans.  Absolutely nothing is done to cater to people who would hope for structure or direction.  As such, this music is genuinely exploratory, but also devoid of the self-criticism which leads musicians to edit their compositions down to more concise forms, or to choose more effective notes.  The album's title indicates as much.

The title could be interpreted as a reflection of either great confidence or great insecurity.  Indeed, left to their own devices, listeners would not likely describe this album as 'beautiful'.  Therefore, the band is effectively saying that their own self perception of the sounds is more important than the listener's.

I'm not sure beautiful is the word for this recording, and I'm not sure I enjoy listening to it, either, but it does reflect life, and the fact that it's as awkward and ugly as beautiful.  I personally would've enjoyed to hear some more textural diversity, like we get from the brief moments of organ and shakuhachi, but then, the album wasn't made for me, was it?

Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5Rating: 3 out of 5

Josh Landry
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