Larry Bartley and Just Us! – Beauty in the Hideous
(Self-released. CD reviewed by Jon Turney)
Like any great bassist, Larry Bartley has lent his weight to many ensembles, but he seems to have a special affinity for classy saxophone players – including gigs or recordings with Denys Baptiste, Chris Biscoe, Jean Toussaint, Courtney Pine and Ingrid Laubrock. Just Us, who began gigging last Summer, features two more of them, Tony Kofi and Ed Jones, along with drummer Rod Youngs.
A new group of old hands, then, and their debut recording, makes the most of their collective experience. The strong flavour of Ornette Coleman in the opening moments of Kofi’s alto statement on the first track tells you right away that this is squarely in the freebop zone – with two horns and a deeply responsive rhythm section – that Coleman’s great quartets invented.
It’s a demanding area to operate in, leaving so much space to fill with invention. The players here rise to that challenge beautifully for 75 minutes. All the compositions are by Bartley, save for one from the drummer, and they mostly set a mood which the players then develop, sometimes at length, as the moment moves them. The most ambitious is the three-part Blackboy Hill (likely a reference to an old Bristol street name, I fancy), a recapitulation of the slave trade whose final portion Welcome to the New World, is anchored by a yearning bass riff. It continues unwavering as the horns expand a soft lament that doesn’t leave any doubt this is a grief-stricken journey’s end.
Elsewhere there are pieces that unfold over a groove, some languid, some snappy, plenty of solos from the horns – with Jones (I think) contributing on bass clarinet as well as tenor sax – and many passages where both saxes work together. They can do pinpoint unison, but are more inclined to exploit the pleasing tension of playing almost-but-not-quite-together, and both bend the pitch as well as the beat when it suits. As you’d expect there’s also a lot of improvising where they are playing interweaving lines simultaneously, sometimes fast and furious, often more measured, always sounding more like a live set than many studio albums do.
And always there is Bartley’s bass, with a deliciously dark, thick timbre – think Wilbur Ware or Jimmy Garrison – that reminds you how crucial the liberation of the sound of the great fiddle has been in this music. This is only his second effort as a leader, I believe. The first was over a decade ago. I suspect you are only going to see this fine new CD on a gig, or via the Just Us Facebook page – but do seek it out. We need to encourage him not to wait so long next time.