If ever there was a novelist whose work seems ideally suited for musical expression, it would be Rachel Kushner. With phrases that jump off the page with infectious energy and themes that reveal themselves fleetingly and mysteriously, her books swirl with ideas, but always with the unmistakable impression that are deeper truths yet to be found beneath the surface. It’s precisely these attributes that make pianist Gabriel Zucker‘s hour-long suite, Weighting, a similar exercise in discovery and wonder, as he draws his inspiration from Kushner’s 2013 novel The Flamethrowers.
Zucker has an extensive background in classical music, and he often performs twentieth century repertoire as a concert pianist. But his jazz credentials are equally as noteworthy, whether it involves working with drummer Gabriel Globus-Hoenich in the pared-down jazz duo No Reference for Taste or his larger ensemble, The Delegation, which includes trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and saxophonist Eric Trudell, both of whom are present on Weighting. Completing the quartet here is the inimitable Tyshawn Sorey, whose range and creativity as a percussionist is virtually unmatched in today’s world of improvised music. Together the four musicians explore Zucker’s unique dreamworld with a distinctive combination of precision and freedom.
The eight pieces are integrally connected, so the album is best appreciated start-to-finish, ideally in one sitting. And it’s a well-conceived suite, to be sure, with sharply-defined themes present right from the opening, “Would It Come Back to You,” where O’Farrill and Trudel begin the recording by teasing out some of the central ideas of the suite through lines running in tandem and in counterpoint, before Sorey and Zucker enter with a thunderous explosion of intensity. The driving urgency of the music is perfect in capturing the manic momentum of Kushner’s writing, which in The Flamethrowers depicts a world in flux, whether it involves the obsession of speed in motorcycle racing or the bizarre complexities of conceptual art or the revolutionary politics of 70s-era Italy.
But although the music has its delightfully robust moments, the most captivating qualities of the album are frequently its more elusive ones: gauzy segments in which one’s grasp of the music is seemingly secure, only to have it slip away into dissolution. Sorey’s role is pivotal in this regard, as he often supplements his conventional role behind the kit for his usual array of percussive effects. Also crucial are the post-production decisions by Zucker and Chris Connors, which add layers of sonic texture to the music that enhance its oblique beauty.
Lest one get the impression that Zucker’s experimental ambition overrides the simple joys of the music, however, it’s worth stressing that at its core this is most certainly a jazz album, with a deep sense of groove, melodic clarity and improvisational vigor. When the quartet dig in with abandon on “The Stream of New York,” for instance, and Trudel soars alongside O’Farrill while Sorey and Zucker raise the intensity to a howl, the results are stunning. And just as moving are the moments of tranquil reverie, where Zucker’s ability to craft a lyrical phrase is on full display, whether through the horns’ plaintive lament or Zucker’s own delicate, graceful flourishes.
It’s a magical recording, and one that should garner the heightened attention that Zucker and his colleagues rightly deserve.