Appropriately for a recording so titled, Weighting presents music of such raw, elemental force it often feels like it’s welled up from the earth like a geophysical event. Drummer Tyshawn Sorey, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, and saxophonist Eric Trudel perform pianist Gabriel Zucker’s compositions with an at times volcanic intensity, though they also play with nuance and sensitivity when the material calls for it; as tumultuous and aggressive as many episodes are, there are just as many characterized by lyrical restraint. The absence of a bassist is no small detail. Without it, the music takes on a destabilizing quality; obviously the presence of piano and drums establishes a firm foundation and tonal center, yet the omission of bass also makes the music feel less grounded.
For his fourth studio album, Zucker, a Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar, drew for inspiration from Rachel Kushner’s 2013 novel The Flamethrowers, which is set primarily in the milieu of the ‘70s New York art scene. His decision to use her writing as a conceptual foundation lends the hour-long composition greater resonance; though the music is instrumental, connections between the novel excerpt included on the package’s inner sleeve and the playing can be easily made. In the passage, she addresses the nature of the soul (the album title stems from a detail relating to a remote Amazon tribe who “weighted themselves with stones so that their souls would not wander away”) and the myriad ways by which people weight themselves (friends, success, art, etc.), ideas that Zucker uses as a guide for structuring his eight-movement piece into three parts, “Soul,” “Appointments,” and “Stones.” Messiaen and Ives are cited as influences on the pianist, yet while that may be the case Weighting impresses as a genuine original creation.
Being players who are able to adhere to notated material yet not be restricted by it, the musicians Zucker selected to join him on the project prove pivotal to its impact. In his own words, “The piece is composed: it has an identity, a form, content; many parts of it are even entirely notated. But the musical surface is often left open for improvisation, in directions that I know the players I’ve chosen will be able to run. This, to me, is how you truly take advantage of the personalities of your musicians, and how you create an alive, dynamic performance.” That it most definitely is, the result of a single, intense, four-hour recording session at Oktaven Audio in Mount Vernon.
O’Farrill and Trudel inaugurate the album strikingly with an extended series of interwoven statements in “Would It Come Back to You?,” Zucker and Sorey sitting out until the four-minute mark. All involved play with authority, O’Farrill unleashing brash declamations and the saxophonist matching him flourish for grand flourish. The pianist and drummer are as assertive, Zucker holding things together with virtuosic density and Sorey an eruptive and ever-inventive presence. With the onset of “The Usefulness of Truth / Not to Be Anything More,” the music takes a decidedly ghostly turn, with the four exhibiting a searching, explorative bent in their rubato-styled playing. Trudel growls through his horn vociferously, Sorey punctuating the trajectory of his playing with percussive accents, until O’Farrill joins in with his own bluster. Elsewhere, the trumpeter, sometimes muted, brays with the focused conviction of a bullfighter, and all concerned attack Zucker’s roiling music with passion. The horn players’ occasional move away from the microphone (most audible, obviously, during a quieter section such as the one in “Missing Our Appointments With Each Other”) gives the music an extra intriguing dimension, their echo-laden expressions at such moments heard as if from a distance.
Be forewarned: Weighting isn’t wallpaper music. While never veering out of control, the music often escalates to fiery levels, though it also decompresses for a number of subdued explorative sequences. Ultimately, the success of the project hinges as much on the playing of the musicians as the compositions and on that count all distinguish themselves handily. During the post-performance playback, Zucker must have considered himself a lucky man indeed to have had such attentive musicians join him on this dynamic ride.