Martin Archer + Engine Room Favourites – Safety Signal from a Target Town
(Discus 66. CD review by Brian Marley)
An area of jazz still underexplored is that made under the auspices of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), particularly by the Art Ensemble of Chicago during the 1960s and ’70s, their decades of greatest innovation. Although the Art Ensemble’s loose-limbed swagger was jazz-based, blues-imbued and American through and through, it also had a strong African flavour, notably in the way they used small percussion instruments, giving them a role equal in the music to that of saxophones, trumpet, double bass and drumkit. Essentially they drew on the improvisational musics of the black diaspora and recontextualised them in the jazz tradition.
The innovations of Roscoe Mitchell and fellow AACMers, Anthony Braxton, Muhal Richard Abrams and Wadada Leo Smith weren’t lost on Martin Archer. His music, like theirs, draws inspiration from many sources and is ambitious and wide-ranging, as exemplified by his 2016 release, Story Tellers (Discus 57), which assigned specific roles and tale-telling requirements to each of seven instrumentalists. I’m happy to report that Safety Signal from a Target Town is no less ambitious and every bit as successful.
Archer (saxophones, bass recorder) is joined by 12 musicians from the Discus stable (several of whom were also on Story Tellers), all strong improvisers capable of moving seamlessly from open-ended free sections to knotty, fully composed passages. If the large number of musicians on Safety Signal suggests a big band, with sectional play and spotlit solos, well, that’s part of the story but by no means all.
As with the work of the Art Ensemble, instrumental roles are democratised. The ensembles thicken and thin according to need, though there are relatively few moments when everyone plays at the same time. There are two drummer/percussionists and two additional percussionists but, again, they rarely all play at once, though when they do they can sound like a field of cicadas. Even the most tumultuous passages are lucidly presented, helped no end by the top-notch recording, made last year at Real World Studios. The way a squall-section midway through the title track is brought to heel by a descending phrase from Archer’s baritone saxophone, allowing Seth Bennett’s double bass to instigate a jazz-rock section pitched somewhere between the slinky flow of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew and the often more rhythmically foursquare early albums by Ian Carr’s Nucleus, is typical of the shifts in emphasis in these compositions and how well they’re handled throughout.
Archer composed the themes and demo’d them at home, overdubbing all the parts himself, and pianist Laura Cole transcribed the material and made scores. She’s also responsible for additional voicings. Between them they’ve done an excellent job; the compositions are memorable and the instrumental configurations offer considerable variety. It’s often in the transitions between themed and open material where you notice how subtly things have been done. There is, for example, an exquisite breakdown section near the centre of the longest track, The Playground in the Desert, where Cole, then Corey Mwamba (vibraphone) are joined by Bennett’s bass in dreamy free improvisation before the theme kicks back in.
Safety Signal from a Target Town turns jazz touchstones over to find out what’s underneath. It’s a strong contender for jazz album of the year!