Wizard Music Inc.
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Cover art included, liner notes not included
Sometimes when three busy musicians, all mutual admirers, take the next step and form a trio, new creative avenues open before them and the world of improvised music is richer for it. With Lean, an album but also a de facto band name, tenor saxophonist Jerome Sabbagh, electric bassist Simon Jermyn and drummer Allison Miller combine their formidable talents in a bristling set of original music. We hear their subtlety and breadth as players as well as their distinct compositional voices. Whether spontaneously creating, or drawing on and reinterpreting works from their own catalogues, Sabbagh-Jermyn-Miller arrive at a depth and beauty as a unit that defies easy categorization.
Sabbagh and Miller are longtime friends and sometime collaborators who came to New York (from France and greater Washington, D.C., respectively) at around the same time in the mid ’90s. Jermyn, originally from Ireland, met Sabbagh years later in Brooklyn and the two arranged to play together. “It felt good right away,” says Sabbagh. “I wasn’t looking to commit to another project but the chemistry of this trio felt undeniable. It turns out that Simon heard me live in Dublin in the late ’90s with the band Flipside on one of my first tours!”
Jermyn composed the title track, “Lean,” and his remarks could serve as something of a credo for the band: “I like words that can have more than one meaning depending on the context. As titles of tunes, the only context is the music itself. I also like when music can be heard different ways in terms of the feelings it might convey, rather than being really explicit. I was going for something like that with this tune.” Toward the end, an ethereal sound emerges in the background — it’s the melody, Jermyn explains, played backwards and up an octave through a looping pedal.
The leadoff track, Miller’s “Spotswood Drive,” first appeared on the 2013 release No Morphine No Lilies by her outstanding quartet Boom Tic Boom. That version featured violin and piano; here the piece takes on another character. Sabbagh starts and remains on a long tenor sax drone, in essence anchoring the bass, while Jermyn plays the main melodic role, filling out the harmony in his inimitable way with deft intervallic movement. The roles switch as Sabbagh begins to blow and Miller brings her abstract textural musings to the foreground. “The song means a lot because I wrote it for my first teacher,” Miller shares. “When we started playing it Simon would just take the melody sometimes, and I thought that was gorgeous, the way he loops — his sound on the electric bass is so beautiful. This song just floated in a natural way so I thought it would be great for the band.”
“Electric Sun,” by Sabbagh, is more immediately beat-driven, a clear and singable piece that first appeared on the saxophonist’s 2014 quartet outing The Turn (with Ben Monder on guitar). Jermyn’s warm and harmonically savvy approach to the tune highlights how he can enfold bass and guitar sensibilities into one. “I was going for a faster, meaner version of the song,” Sabbagh says. “The quartet version is pretty contemplative and after recording it I started playing the song faster in general.”
“Olney 60/30,” named for Miller’s Maryland hometown, was written around the time of the drummer’s 30th and her mother’s 60th birthdays. “Our birthdays are a day apart,” Miller says. The song first appeared on Steampunk Serenade (2011) by Miller’s Honey Ear Trio. “I’ve always wanted this song played with electric bass, and when this trio formed, I thought, ‘Well, here we go.’ We approached it in a fresh way, with some duo moments and other things. It ended up being very different than the original recording.”
Out of several purely free improvisations ventured on the date, “Bunker” and “Ghost” were the two that the trio decided to include. “We just tried to keep an open mind and play,” says Sabbagh. “We may have started with a sonic direction: maybe Simon’s loop pedal, maybe Allison’s ‘bike and effects’ rig.”
About that rig, which also crops up on “Spotswood Drive”: it’s an experimental instrument invented by Seattle’s Sean Lane — a stripped-down bike frame outfitted with various percussive instruments and a single electric bass string, as well as pickups and contact microphones, running a signal to a preamp and then out to an amplifier. “Because of the way Simon plays and the way he uses looping,” says Miller, “it really seemed natural to bring the bike into the recording. A lot of times I would bow that bass string and then run it through a whole system of pedals I use.”
“Otis,” by Jermyn, is a nod to legendary soul singer Otis Redding. “The great saxophonist Bill McHenry told me about a record called The Immortal Otis Redding,” Jermyn recalls, “and I ended up spending a lot of time with that music because it’s amazing!” The tune is direct and instantly appealing, somewhat like “Electric Sun,” with Sabbagh handling the legato melody as the band relaxes into a steady rock-like feel. Jermyn solos first, followed by Sabbagh and concluding with a capricious vamp that reflects Jermyn’s love of Malian and Senegalese pop.
“Comptine” first appeared on I Will Follow You, Sabbagh’s evocative 2010 trio date with Ben Monder and drum veteran Daniel Humair. The version in question was just once through the melody and out, though the trio would always expand on it when playing it live. That process of expansion continues on Lean. Miller’s colorful brushwork, Jermyn’s eerie water-like sounds, Sabbagh’s tenor lyricism and legato expression: it all grows out of the simplest of ideas, the “comptine” or French nursery rhyme.
“Fast Fish,” by Jermyn, takes inspiration from a passage in Moby Dick. According to the unwritten law by which a whaling ship can claim possession of a dead whale, the whale must be “fast” to the ship, bound by “a mast, an oar, a nine-inch cable, a telegraph wire, or a strand of cobweb, it is all the same.” Jermyn liked the image and its logic of firm and flimsy attachments being given equal weight. Otherwise, Melville’s prose has no direct bearing on the tune, which is slinky and polyrhythmically funky, a true rhythm section workout and a strong Sabbagh tenor feature as well.
“I really enjoy the variety of what this band can do,” Sabbagh offers in conclusion. “We go in and out of chords, grooves and textures but somehow it feels whole and connected. I think all three of us try to be in the moment and not prejudge or preconceive things. We trust each other enough to go on an adventure together. That’s what makes this band special to me and also enables us to play so many different kinds of material and still sound like a band.”