On their debut album, Threads (MP3, cassette), the Caterpillar Quartet play jazz both free and traditionally with equal skill. But while they’re clearly good at playing jazz in either style, it’s how this album presents the two sides of their musical personality that may (or may not) split fans.
Ken Kobayashi, Jochem van Dijk, Henry Raker, Steve Holtje
Photos by Eva Kapanadze, William Butler, (no credit), and John Ricard, respectfully
Recorded January 6th, 2019,
a year after they formed, Threads marks the first collaboration between drummer Ken Kobayashi, electric bass guitarist Jochem van Dijk, alto saxophonist Henry Raker, and keyboard player Steve Holtje (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is an old friend and former coworker). Well, as a foursome, anyway; Caterpillar Quartet is an offshoot of Theoretical Mustache, which is what Kobayashi, van Dijk, and Holtje called themselves when they were a quintet with a guitarist and some sax players.
For the first half of Threads, the members of Caterpillar Quartet take a free jazz approach to their music. With loose, atmospheric tones, “Intimations” serves as both a bold opening statement and an overture for the first half of this collection, while the second track, “Skronky,” is a rather on-the-nose name for a tune in which Raker blows his sax like he’s trying to get someone’s attention, while van Dijk angrily massages his bass, and Kobayashi and Holtje match the cacophony.
Caterpillar Quartet’s Threads then mix the approaches of “Intimations” and “Skronky” for “The Machine In The Ghost,” mixing atmospheric tones and more aggressive sounds with no regard for a recognizable structure, before going back to the relatively laid-back approach of the former for the stark, sparse, and (again) on-the-nosy named “Noir,” which comes complete with Raker playing some smoky sax.
Next, Threads continues with an almost punk-infused jazz track called “Tempest,” on which Kobayashi, van Dijk, and Holtje take a traditional jazz approach, but Raker plays his sax like he’s the guitar player in a classic rock band. Or the sax player in the rock-infused jazz band Machine Gun.
Threads then takes a decidedly sharp left turn with “Essence,” a beautiful and rather straight-forward piano-led piece that is the most traditional-sounding jazz tune on this disc. Though it also, like “Intimations” before it, serves as a good primer for what’s to follow. Which starts with song “Embers,” on which Kobayashi, van Dijk, Holtje, and Raker continue to play with the traditional jazz approach, albeit in a slightly more upbeat way.
“Embers” is followed on Threads by “Requiem,” which could be considered free jazz adjacent, though only barely, in how Raker gets slightly more aggressive while Kobayashi, van Dijk, and Holtje stay on the more traditional path. If the earlier songs “Skronky” and “The Machine In The Ghost” were Caterpillar Quartet channeling John Coltrane circa Live In Japan, then “Requiem” is Blue World-era Coltrane.
Caterpillar Quartet then end their debut with “Inside Out,” which goes all the way to the atmospheric approach of “Intimations,” but with a more traditional jazz structure and playing style.
Taken on their own, all of the tunes on Threads work really well, with “Intimations” and “Embers” being the stand out tracks. But while people who are fans of both free and traditionally structured jazz will enjoy this collection, they may not appreciate how the Caterpillar Quartet have essentially split the album in two. While some will appreciate the separation, others will undoubtedly wish they alternated between the free and traditionally-structured tracks, and still others will think they should’ve recorded more of both and released them as separate albums, maybe even under different names (Insect Collective comes to mind).
But still others will point out…
that since the only physical version of Threads being released on cassette (which has two sides), while fans can reconfigure the digital version how ever they wish, this structural debate is merely academic. Because regardless of how you listen to Threads — be it the way they intended or in some configuration of your own choosing — there’s no denying that the Caterpillar Quartet are on to something interesting.