Released under the titular leadership of drummer Sunny Murray, The Gearbox Explodes! features the same line-up as Home Cooking In The UK (Foghorn Records, 2004), and is in practice another exercise in collective music making of the purest and least hierarchical kind. Murray's leadership is confined to establishing an opening tempo and beat for each of the three tracks, and, later, bringing them to a close.
Music so wholly unpremeditated and in-the-moment as this requires listening musicianship of the highest degree, and courage on the part of its creators. The analogy has probably been used before, but free improvisation is not unlike skydiving. In defiance of caution, or indeed sanity, you jump out of a plane into a void and trust in your parachute, or in this case your fellow musicians, to bring you down safely.
The Gearbox Explodes! succeeds because Murray, tenor and bass saxophonist Tony Bevan and bassist John Edwards are each fearless and have, over time, developed a level of group empathy which enables deep and vigorous interaction.
Murray (born 1937) is an elder statesman of the music with an impressive provenancehe played with pianist Cecil Taylor in the early 1960s, was featured on saxophonist Albert Ayler's totemic Spiritual Unity (ESP Disk, 1964), and made his debut as leader with Sunny Murray Quintet (ESP Disk, 1966). Bevan and Edwards are younger, but both are seasoned adepts of British free improv, and have recorded and performed together frequently since making Nothing Is Permanent But Woe (Foghorn Records, 2000).
Recorded live on tour in 2007, the new album opens with "Right On Guys," a 38-minute tour de force of fierce, but nuanced, energy and considerable rough beauty. Bevan takes the first "solo" (the term is relative in this context), playing the tenor with unusual lyricism for the first four minutes, before moving into more abstract and intense terrain. Twenty minutes later he returns on bass saxophone, over a free rhythm which morphs under Murray's direction into a conventionally swinging 4/4 section with propulsive walking bass. Between times and later, Murray and Edwards delight with duets brimming with novel sounds and textures (Edwards' reverberating, wrenched strings are especially memorable).
"Right On Guys" is packed with incidentit's like a big dipper ride, one which leaves the listener exhilarated and intoxicated. The track segues into "Hold It Right There," by comparison a rather uneventful bass saxophone showcase, but at about six minutes one that doesn't outstay its welcome.
The closing "The Gearbox Explodes!" is another incident-packed collective workout, its first 10 minutes performed over funky drum and bass lines, before moving into free rhythm, still with an R&B feel, for the second half. Another remarkable album from this hard-wired trio.
Personnel: Sunny Murray: drums; John Edwards: bass; Tony Bevan: tenor and bass saxophones.