In my never-ending quest to find interesting and moody jazz that isn’t made by a piano / bass / drum trio, or some other equally common combination, I present Retrograde (CD, digital) a free jazz duo collection by trumpeter, flugelhorn player, and alto clarinetist Matt Lavelle and drummer Reggie Sylvester, best known as two-fourths of the Bern Nix Quartet.
Recorded October 18, 2015, Retrograde is somewhat inspired by John Coltrane’s Interstellar Space, on which the tenor sax master similarly created free jazz duets with his then drummer Rashied Ali. Which is why Retrograde, like Interstellar Space before it, features songs named for the planets in our solar system, with the newer collection honoring the ones that Coltrane did not: Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Mercury, Earth, and our star.
None of which is to imply that Retrograde is as good as Interstellar Space, let’s not be ridiculous. While Reggie Sylvester is a solid drummer, and Matt Lavelle is good on the trumpet, flugelhorn, and alto clarinet, nether are near what ‘Trane and Ali were doing when they recorded Interstellar Space in 1967.
But that doesn’t matter. What does is that Retrograde is an impressive collection of moody music that may scratch a similar itch as Interstellar Space, but in a different enough way that it stands on its own and is no way redundant or derivative.
Or even, when you get right down to it, similar. Even with the like-minded configuration. Where Interstellar Space is often noisy and abrasive, as Coltrane’s music often got during this period of his career, Matt Lavelle and Reggie Sylvester take a different approach to free jazz on Retrograde, and instead make music that’s more free form in its structure but more traditional in how each instrument is played.
Take “Uranus,” the track that opens Retrograde. To people who aren’t fans of totally improvised music, it may sound as if Matt Lavelle and Reggie Sylvester aren’t playing the same song, or even listening to each other, given how Sylvester wails on the drums while Lavelle plays with a much slower tempo. And yet it works despite (or maybe because of) the cacophony.
Conversely, “Neptune,” the track that follows “Uranus,” alternates between moments of silence and bits a manic playing, but always with Matt Lavelle and Reggie Sylvester in perfect sync, while “Pluto,” the next track on Retrograde, is a moody and atmospheric mix of slow horn and percussion bits.
Not surprisingly, Matt Lavelle and Reggie Sylvester then swing things around again on Retrograde with “Mercury,” which follows but greatly diverges from “Pluto” by having both musicians go agro on their respective instruments.
It’s then back to the somewhat disjointed approach of “Uranus” with the track “The Sun” (rather fitting given a star’s volatile nature), with Retrograde ending on “Earth,” a moody, smoky lament that’s the most traditional sounding track on the album, but one that still fits the wild path this album takes as a whole.
Of course, it helps that Reggie Sylvester is a solid drummer, as good a rhythmatist as Matt Lavelle is a horn player. And that the pairing of a drummer with a trumpeter, flugelhorn player, and alto clarinetist not only makes this sound different from the drum and sax of Interstellar Space, but also from such similarly free form jazz duo albums as Live At Okuden by pianist Matthew Shipp and clarinetist, saxophonist, and flautist Mat Walerian.
In the end, Retrograde is a unique and compelling jazz duo album, one that I hope doesn’t mirror Interstellar Space in how Coltrane’s collection was a one-off thing. There are a lot more planets to be honored.