by Troy Collins, Point of Departure
Weighting, the fourth studio album by pianist Gabriel Zucker, was inspired by The Flamethrowers, a 2013 novel by Rachel Kushner in which the narrative alternates between the 1970s New York art world and Italy’s revolutionary politics. The session is composed of an expansive three-part suite divided into eight movements, titled after passages from the book, which surge and recede through a wide range of dynamics. A Yale graduate and Rhodes scholar, Zucker’s urbane compositions balance pre-written, clearly delineated themes with ample space allotted for unfettered improvisation that is often both spacious and intimate, but occasionally disrupted by raucous interludes or dramatic passages.
Zucker is best known for leading a progressive big band, The Delegation, which was documented on his first ESP-Disk’ release, 2016’s Evergreen (Canceled World). The music on Weighting is performed by a much smaller ensemble, a bass-less quartet featuring a two-horn frontline composed of Delegation members Eric Trudel on tenor saxophone and Adam O’Farrill on trumpet. Rounding out the group is award winning drummer Tyshawn Sorey, who offers far more than mere time keeping to Zucker’s percussive themes, imbuing a sense of density that sounds far greater than four voices. The quartet’s rapport is captured by an exceptional studio recording; O’Farrill and Trudel play in tandem unaccompanied for long stretches, harmonizing in unison while wandering away from the microphones, drifting into the ether bathed in reverb and echo. Drums and piano are well-balanced in the stereo field, never overwhelming the horns, even though Sorey and Zucker are both capable of explosive playing.
Setting the tone for this wide-ranging session, “Would It Come Back To You” leads off with a probing acapella duet between O’Farrill and Trudel, where polyphonic lines resolve in parallel movement, motivic call-response, and bold timbral variations. The main theme materializes half-way, when Zucker and Sorey join with a dramatic flourish of triumphant piano harmonies and exuberant percussive drive. “The Uselessness of Truth / Not To Be Anything More” inverts the opening dynamic with spiraling piano and spectral percussion, but Trudel eventually takes the spotlight with an array of extended techniques, ranging from breathy multiphonics to percussive slap tongue. For “The Stream of New York / and art, of course,” Zucker morphs a piercing one-note pedal tone and fractured chords into a series of overlapping motifs, leading the group to a fervent crescendo, stoked by Sorey’s shifting groove and Trudel’s expressive vocalizations. Providing introspective respite, O’Farrill launches “Missing Our Appointments With Each Other” alone before Trudel joins, providing lyrical accompaniment. The chamber-like atmosphere carries over to the beginning of the enthralling “What’s Left / The Future Was A Place,” where the line between the written score and improvisation is blurred by the quartet’s ecstatic elegance – ragged, but beautiful. The remainder of the program continues in equally dynamic fashion, culminating in the episodic “the stones in my pockets.”
Unimpeded by traditional notions of Western harmonic theory, Weighting expertly balances avant-garde abstraction with neoclassical formalism, reflecting a committed artistry of tempestuous romanticism. Zucker’s writing is knotty and unconventional, symbolically acknowledging the loft jazz of the ‘70s without directly emulating it. Although drawing upon the classical tradition, Zucker defies convention, stating “I don’t really love big, defined, resolved endings … It seems to me that if things were that neatly resolved, that doesn’t really map to any life experience I’ve had. Most of my music … adds a bit of a question mark … at the end.” Zucker’s summation may be most apt, “Like most of my work, “Weighting” is long and not exactly a light listening experience. But at its best, it should draw you in to move at the same speed it does.”