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DownBeat Magazine



Dancing On Thin Ice



 by Paul de Barros

The innovative trio Plunge apparently subscribes to the altogether attractive idea that avant-garde music need not be abrasive, iconoclastic or frenzied. In fact, it can be swinging, listener-friendly and—heaven forefend!—beautiful. Such a deal. The last time this trombone-led group dove in, it was a low-leaning quartet with bass, tuba and drums. This time, trombonist Mark McGrain teams up with saxophone and bass, a trio configuration that recalls, in its spare sound and judicious use of space, the Jimmy Giuffre Trio with Jim Hall and Bob Brookmeyer—though in Plunge’s case, the driving force is percolating New Orleans brass band music, not West Coast cool. I liked the first album (Falling With Grace) and I like this one even better, in part because, without drums, the marching pulse is subtly implied instead of spelled out.

For only three instrumentalists, Plunge covers a lot of sonic territory. Funky saxophonist Tim Green plays tenor, bari and soprano, bassist James Singleton bows and plucks, and McGrain feeds his bone through various electronic devices, as well as playing all over the horn, from the basement to the attic, including vocalized multiphonics. The tunes boast conceptual variety, as well, from textural explorations and movie-suspense atmospherics to angular postbop and raucous rock. Many of the tunes are memorable (how often can you say that about a jazz album these days?), solos are to the point and players interact intelligently with one another, using understated dynamics.

I especially enjoyed the lightly dancing opening track, “Friday Night At The Top.” Green’s piping tenor sound and graceful glances into the altissimo and McGrain’s mix of wheezy highs, didgeridoo throbs and tasteful electronic distortions are highlights. Though not overbearing, the electronically generated splayed-foghorn sound of the driving “One Man’s Machine” sounds like something out of heavy metal, leavened with a sort of baby goo-gooing effect topping McGrain’s live trombone. “Opium” showcases a gamboling tenor solo and swings with a cheerful, happy flow, while also suggesting the secret, dreamy place its name might take you to.

On the title track, McGrain inserts an ironic quote from “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” an appropriate commentary on this oddly angular, swinging melody—doubly so when the trio sets aside a regular pulse during their solos. “Missing Mozambique,” a gorgeous slow waltz that suggests the feeling of a hymn, features another spectacular trombone solo full of sparkling bursts. “The Praise Singer” carries on the African mood with soaring, outdoor, anthemic elation.

I’m not sure why the band inserted a 58-second interlude between these two tunes, but it easily could have been omitted. Other than that, the only minor complaint I’d make is that Green’s soprano sax sound (on “Orion Rising”) is a bit scrawny, though his baritone on “Life Of A Cipher” is sweet and lovely. I love the way he and McGrain bob and weave on the final track,“Skickin’ Away.”

It takes a great deal of poise and confidence to make music this deft and new. What a pleasure to have an innovative album one also wants to rush out and play for friends. —Paul de Barros

Dancing On Thin Ice: Friday Night At The Top; Life Of A Cipher; Orion Rising; Luminata No. 257; One Man’s Machine; Opium; Dancing On Thin Ice; Missing Mozambique; Jugs March In; The Praise Singer; Skickin’ Away. (51:49)

Personnel: Mark McGrain, trombone, electronics; Tim Green, tenor saxophone, baritone saxophone, soprano saxophone; James Singleton, bass.



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