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Hammeriver: Hammeriver

img  Tobias Fischer

The debut, self-titled album by Hammeriver walks the thin line between free jazz and conceptually driven improvisational “new music.” Led by Australian harpist Clare Cooper, the ensemble features two bassists, piano, harp, electronics, clarinet/saxophone, and drumset. While much of the music is entirely improvised, it never loses sight of compositional curve or emotional intensity, resulting in a listen rich in both concept and delivery.
Hammeriver begins with an innovative interpretation of Alice Coltrane’s “Ohnedaruth.” Cooper distilled the piece to what she deemed to be its core elements, and then rearranged it as a graphic score (a notational style in which the instrumentalists follow the contours of lines or interpret pictures as opposed to reading sequences of notes). The compelling result—“Second Stabbing (Ohnedaruth)”—opens with sparse harp notes and quiet buzzes of static. Bass clarinet gradually rolls into the mix, followed by a subtle mess of cymbal sounds and bowed bass. By the time the tenor saxophone begins its delivery of atonal Eric Dolphy-like mutterings, the piece has snowballed into an emotional sonic conglomerate of cymbals, overtones, and electro-hissing.

While the music is almost entirely improvised, the ensemble rarely entirely escapes the gravitational pull of tonality.  Even at its most abstract, much of the improvisation is anchored by a single-chord modality that provides the listener a frame of reference. “Second Stabbing,” “E,” and “DD” are all constructed with an additive process: a single chord or motif introduced by the harp gains momentum with the addition of the other instruments until the ensemble becomes a fiery, propulsive ball of sound.

“First Free” and “Heartbreaker” take a less organic approach. As opposed to gradual layering, in these improvisations, the instrumentalists interact pointilistically with one another. A short piano trill is followed by a slap-tongued saxophone phoneme; harp and bass alternate notes within deadened cymbal hits. “First Free” moves through periods of relative cohesion—where the instruments do blend together, layering into swelling tides of sound—and deconstructive sections interspersing isolated instrumental sounds.

Throughout Hammeriver, the instrumentalists move as a seamless, uniform unit. “First Free,” “DD” and “Heartbreaker” are edits of free improvisations, but the ensemble’s degree of interaction and attention to emotional delivery make for shapeful, cohesive listens that have the effect of full-fledged compositions. “Second Stabbing (Ohnedaruth)” and “E,” both lengthy, conceptually guided improvisations, never grow tiresome or lose their sense of direction, largely because the musicians play with such restraint, allowing their ideas to gradually interact with one another and organically build to states of ecstasy. The result is a highly original album that transcends the headiness of academic free improvisation with an intense and accessible emotional core, making for a thoroughly engaging listen.

By Hannis Brown

Homepage: Clare Cooper
Homepage: Mikroton Recordings

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