Ken Thomson Spins Invention and Prankster-ish Glee in 'Thaw'

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Ken Thomson’s resume is a decent guide to his taste. Playing alto sax in the Asphalt Orchestra – also known as Lincoln Center’s street-marching band – shows he’s into new arrangements of Charles Mingus, Bjork and Frank Zappa. Thomson’s own chamber-jazz compositions, played by his Slow/Fast ensemble, sit comfortably in a lineage with several generations of Downtown splatter-swing.

He’s also the latest addition to the Bang On A Can All-Stars (in which he plays clarinet), so there’s bound to be a post-minimal influence, as well. And yet his first album as a composer for the Cantaloupe label – titled "Thaw" and performed by the JACK Quartet – is much more than a sub-genre shopping-list. It’s his new career highlight.

The three-movement Perpetual opens the disc. Slowly unfolding unison lines, shared among the low end of the quartet and Thomson’s bass clarinet, present a wintry (if gentle) sound world that ices over into something more crunchy and alarming, once the remaining quartet players enter, sporting keening dissonances.

If the first movement’s slow and steady run up the pitch ladder feels to you like a set-up, or a pregnant pause, you’re not far off: "Bad Idea," the second movement, is a raucous, 16th-note parade. The scalar writing and steady riffing might get old quickly in other hands, but the invention of Thomson’s writing – some JACK players are right with him, note for note, while others slash in and around his lead line with prankster-ish glee – keeps things compelling.

The final movement, “Don Pullen Says It’s OK,” references Thomson’s appreciation for the mobility of the jazz pianist, which made room for the blues as well as free-jazz piano-as-percussion. After the extremities of harmony and rhythm displayed in the first two movements, Pullen’s influence on Thomson’s finale manifests as a comfort with unabashed tonality.

Thaw, a four-movement work for string quartet, takes up the balance of the album. It shares a few strategies with the first piece: instrumental parts that may seem alienated in the early going; convergence toward unison lines; a late-in-the-piece turn toward folk-like melody (see the pizzicato charm of “Hole”). By the time of the finale, the opening austerity has, as implicitly promised, thawed into something downright hummable.


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