The Thirteenth Assembly (un)sentimental

[Important; 2009]

Styles: bop, free jazz, Afro-Cuban
Others: {Ornette!}, Alice Coltrane, Brad Mehldau

The Thirteenth Assembly and their means of creation are indeed a curious case. Made up of a cornet, viola, guitar, and drum kit, these four members’ choices of instrumentation do little in the way of creating a tonal balance. Likewise, their live sets consist not only of this quartet playing together, but the members also branching off into three additional unique and smaller ensembles. These performances are open and nontraditional happenings, and the juxtaposition of such clean, normal-looking individuals bellowing noises from their devices in such a monstrous way is a refreshing sight.

(un)sentimental, The Thirteenth Assembly’s first album featuring all four members simultaneously, forges swiftly through soundscapes of dissonance and tone, while also confronting the purpose of structure within a jazz album in 2009. The album switches between out, convulsive, structureless vamping and finely-tuned song structures complete with 251s and AABAs and all that nonsense, sometimes all within the same song. “Bird Dog,” for example, begins in a pleasantly off manner, just quiet cornet and viola harmonizing two tones while the guitar jaggedly plucks at a single string. From there, the drums awkwardly enter, everywhere and childlike. This uncomfortable drum side-stepping occurs throughout the album, and it’s a wonder to hear. From drummer Tomas Fujiwara’s sticks are heard all of percussion history’s greatest jazz weirdoes, from Rashied Ali to Clifford Jarvis. His set experiments are juvenile and uncomfortable, utilizing silence and dynamics in a way that creates nuance out of a general lack thereof. This free-form expedition continues until about the last minute and a half; when a groove is established, guitarist Mary Halvorson fuzzes her strings up, and the piece rides out as a triplet-based rock number. Written out like this, the song almost seems embarrassing in its gimmicks, yet the balance of the structured and the structureless never gets out of hand.

This balancing act of traditional and nontraditional is also found in “Chantal,” the album’s sonic center. Starting in that same uncomfortable way, where all instruments seem to be rehearsing and screwing in front of their listeners in the vein of a Brecht play, the song establishes time within moments, with the set clicking away at sides and the guitar lightly plucking a polyrhythmic, minimal pattern. From here, the cornet sets ablaze, and everything kicks into a fiery Afro-Cuban number. While Taylor Ho Bynum’s cornet solo is furious and spastic, it doesn’t hold a candle to the thoroughness with which Halvorson loses it on her six strings after the brief trading off of measures between the tonal contingent and the drums. Her solo is liquid, switching out sounds just as quickly as they came in, caring not of the eight notes her solo must keep within. One moment her guitar is simply playing through a very straightforward solo, only to continue sliding and punching through what sound like microtones and sharp bends and curves, and finally to distort itself and snap and pop, the entire time caring not of the band behind it. After everything sets afire, the band pulls back and ends the track like the ladies and gentlemen they are: softly, easily, letting their work smolder.

While the album is indeed stuffed with fascinating gems and oddities, there is so much pulling it back from being an album to remember. For one thing, this quartet is one without a bass, and the album suffers accordingly. Without that bottom half, the entire album sounds stale, clinical. In “Army of Strangers,” the guitar seems to be acting as the bass, outlining the chords with a series of silly patterns. Something is lost on the ears when heard, though, because the guitar's dynamic level in relation to the other limbs is entirely too quiet. When the bass drum thuds, the ringing is interminable and horrid, since the poor guy is the only thing holding that bottom half of sound down. It seems out of place.

The saddest and most foolish thing about (un)sentimental is the album closer, the inaccurately titled “Hate Fields.” This song, after tunes that dip and peak and create energy and run amok, waves goodbye in the most innocuous, bland, and safe way possible. Another word is “boring.” Another word is “bad.” A soft guitar pattern soon leads into rim clicks and cornet crooning, and the viola vibrations blend in with nothing else being played. The song sounds like a joke and marches out just as soon as it marched in.

(un)sentimental is filled with short moments of idiosyncrasies that keep you listening, with no songs solid enough to stand on their own. Yet there’s something very endearing about this. The opening of “Too Sweet” is jilted and adorable in a way only the outtest of jazz can be. Explosions of sound give way to silence give way to explosions of sound. The moment quickly dissolves into an actual song, which quickly dissolves into a moment where every ligament is soloing at once. The result is an experience of sweat and speed and skin. Without little freakouts and blips and other splotches of madness throughout the album, the more lackluster moments would last for years. But this album is a measure-by-measure listening process. This album is an experiment in community and sound.

1. Unfinished Ballad
2. Army of Strangers
3. Bird Dog
4. P#2
5. Pinched
6. Chantal
7. Too Sweet
8. Never Before
9. Hate Fields

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