CD review

Michael Thomas – “Event Horizon”

Michael Thomas – Event Horizon
(Giant Step Arts. CD review by Sam Norris)

“The ‘event horizon’ is the perimeter around a black hole that marks the point of no return,” writes NYC-based alto saxophonist and composer Michael Thomas in the liner note for his latest album for Jimmy Katz’s Giant Step Arts. “Anything crossing that line will be unable to escape.” Named for the rather weighty concept he is describing, Thomas’s first effort as leader since 2011’s The Long Way assembles an aptly muscular musical cast. The saxophonist, a Julliard graduate and sideman with the likes of Brad Mehldau and Nicholas Payton, is joined by longtime collaborator Jason Palmer on trumpet,  bassist Hans Glawischnig from the Miguel Zenon Quartet, and veteran NYC drummer Johnathan Blake; the resultant cocktail, documented across two nights at NYC’s Jazz Gallery, is fearlessly exploratory.

The idea of contrast, both musical and thematic, appears central to Thomas’s artistic vision and crops up at several points throughout the album. Distance, a hard-swinging waltz with an intervallic tune, juxtaposes the serenity of the Manhattan skyline viewed from a distance with the anxiety and chaos of the city itself. The saxophonist is typically light on his feet here, his weaving Dick Oatts-ish lines propelling the band forward and eliciting fascinating responses from Blake, who copes well with the bandleader’s maximalist approach. Palmer’s solo shows his ability to germinate ideas from a single seed, seeing him develop short melodic motifs to provide effective counterpoint (as he does on most of the tunes) to the more freewheeling Thomas.

Dr Teeth deals more explicitly with musical contrasts, its on-trend angular melody underpinned not by the usual modern, time signature-y groove but by a New Orleans second-line pattern. This way of writing mirrors Thomas’s enigmatic improvisational style while saluting the comedy of The Muppet Show (of which the titular character is a part), leading to something which is simultaneously humorous and seat-of-the-pants.

The group really comes into its own further into the record, however. Framework fits an active bassline, a fractured drum part and a punchy melody together to create a highly intricate whole. This meshing of musical cogs is promptly torn apart by Thomas, whose powerful solo takes full advantage of the harmonic freedom afforded by the chordless setting and encourages Glawischnig and Blake to unleash fully.

A fluid sax intro of rapid melodic patterns sets up Chant, a piece named for its passing resemblance to the Gregorian music Thomas studied in college; the tune itself is simple and open-ended, and the soloists explore a multitude of harmonic and rhythmic possibilities within it. The saxophonist’s blow harks back to the complex arpeggios of his introduction, while Palmer’s is characteristically more reserved and soulful, the trumpeter listening for the echo of the rhythm section and playing off it. Blake gets the vamp, his trademark controlled ferocity finally coming to the fore and pushing the piece to an audacious climax.

The title track, with its rubato theme and rip-roaring collective improvisation, is rightly intense. One can almost see the sparks flying off Thomas and Palmer’s horns as their lines weave into and zig-zag around each other, sometimes colliding head first, until a new melody – the tune’s ‘event horizon’ – takes hold and the intensity eventually dies away.

Thomas has done an excellent job of writing tunes which bring out the best in his bandmates, allowing them to express the full breadth of their musical personalities. That isn’t to say the record is a chops-fest; the music is given ample space to breathe throughout (thanks to the inclusion of three spacious solo introductions) and, crucially, is never dominated too strongly by any one improviser.

Event Horizon, then, is a well-balanced and mature statement, showcasing Thomas’s ability to create a compelling narrative using contrasting musical elements and unusual extramusical themes. The distinctive young saxophonist clearly has a bright future ahead of him.

LINKS: Event Horizon on Bandcamp

Michael Thomas website

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