Jack Mouse: Snakeheads & Ladybugs
Artist: Jack Mouse
Title: Snakeheads & Ladybugs
Label: CD Baby
Product Type: COMPACT DISCS
'Snakeheads & Ladybugs' is a brilliant album of improvised duets by two master musicians - drummer Jack Mouse and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson; their first album for Tall Grass Records. At first listen, this might seem like an unexpected departure for these two gentlemen, but it is actually an idea that has been brewing between them since they first began playing together in the 1980s. Their fans and the entire jazz audience will undoubtedly feel that it was worth the wait. The musical concept of the horn and drums duo in the contemporary jazz environment can best be traced back to the euphoric duets between the magnificent John Coltrane and his alter ego Elvin Jones; and later cemented in jazz history with his landmark album with Rashied Ali, 'Interstellar Space.' Although the context has been in place since the earliest days of jazz, it's modern incarnation has been most prevalently associated with the avant-garde or free jazz movements. While avant-garde is a questionable term for a style that has been in full bloom for more than half a century, the concept of free playing demands some clarification. Duke Ellington stated 'Jazz is Freedom; the freedom to play something that's never been played." And Sam Rivers, one of the monumental giants who is often heavily associated with free jazz echoed the sentiments of many of the music's greatest creators when he often said "The only way to be truly free is to have complete mastery of your instrument so you are free to play anything you want to play." That brings us directly to the heart of the matter with Jack and Scott, and perfectly captures the essence of this extraordinary recording. This is not simply a "play the head, improvise, take the head out" recording. In fact, there are no written compositions, but rather a virtually non-stop flow of improvisational communication through twelve distinct phases of mutual exploration - all spontaneously conceived by the two musicians, calling upon their clear and focused knowledge of each other, combined with their consummate mastery and fluency in musical expression. Captivating, powerful, compelling, visceral and inspired are all adjectives that are fully on point to describe this music. And while the format and instrumentation might initially seem limiting, the scope and depth of their imaginations, combined with their radiant musicality produce a limitless and unbound, even cinematic landscape that would not be contained even if there were twice as many pieces on the album. Jack's drums, tuned for a full palette of musical tones - much in the way Max Roach, Joe Chambers and Shelly Manne prepared their instruments - enables him to approach the drums like a pianist or vibraphonist. On 'Bolero Incognito,' his floor tom produces a bass counterpoint to his traps that perfectly envelops Scott's feinting and jabbing tenor. Sometimes Jack produces a hand drum patter, as on the opening of 'Orcan,' dramatically setting up a stirring environment for Scott's audacious use of dynamics that simply explodes from the speakers and grabs the listener by the hair as it builds to it's vigorous climax. In the manner of the aforementioned Trane duos, Jack is not an accompanist, but an equal partner in the creative canvas, in the same manner as a violin/flute duo would be, or in the amazing collaborations between Art Tatum and Lionel Hampton. On 'Backward Glance,' the remarkable Benny Goodman/Gene Krupa duets on the iconic 'Sing, Sing, Sing' were a point of inspiration. This equality of position is really made clear from the opening track Flutter as the tenor and drums literally flutter around each other like two muscular butterflies in a virile pas de deux. Sometimes the drums take the lead, as in the highly evocative 'Two Minute March.' Scott's tenor puts the punctuation on Jack's rolls, following his lead, coloring and emphasizing. Further proving that length does not necessarily dictate content, the aptly-titled 'Scorch,' with rapid-fire tenor blazing alongside sizzling drums squeezes at least six minutes of riveting ideas into it's two-minute duration. 'Dual Duel' should not be thought of as a boxing match between the two musicians, but rather as two individuals standing back to back ready to take on all comers. Here, the entire history of the modern tenor - Rollins, Shorter, Henderson, Rivers, and even Gonsalves - is evoked in Robinson's deliciously angular swing passages with Mouse driving alongside, underneath and sometimes through the mix. While the full breadth of sonics is drawn from the tenor on all the above tracks, Scott brings other instruments to the music for their own unique aural qualities. His Eb clarinet playing on 'Fandango,' fueled by Jack's fractured rhumba beat, is an evolving flow of long tones -luminous and deeply beautiful - with a haunting quality that calls to mind Ornette's exquisite ballad classic, 'Sadness.' Cornet adds a special flavor to 'Funk Infestation' - stoked by a nicely grooved repeated rhythmic pattern setting the tone for Scott's soaring sound; smearing, punching and tearing through in the Don Cherry/Lester Bowie vernacular. The cornet is again at play on 'Shapeshifter,' but this time in a splendid call-and-response with his C-melody sax - lyrical, full-bodied and warm - both unaccompanied and braced by Jack's rolling tom-toms and highly original brushwork. The C-melody combines the body of the tenor with the lustrous dexterity of the alto - and should be a more popular instrument in the jazz idiom. Scott demonstrates why in 'Snakeheads & Ladybugs,' starting with his vivid coloring on Mouse's steady march before melding into longer statements firmly rooted in the harmonic and melodic tradition of jazz, but freely inventive in the inspired interplay with Jack's highly musical drumming. The extraordinary album closes with 'FreeBop,' a very contemporary take on the hard bop tradition. Sizzling cymbals in drive time fuel the surging sax, swinging freely in that ethereal atmosphere that Sam Rivers owned, exploring that special zone of unrestricted creativity without ever losing the essence of the Ellington mantra it don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing - which could be the subtitle of this incandescent album. This duo concept had a brief manifestation as the closing track on 'Range of Motion,' Jack's excellent 2013 album on Origin Records. But 'Snakeheads & Ladybugs' is the stunning full-blown realization of an adventurous journey staked out 30 years ago, and produced in exemplary fashion - with the assistance of the enchanting vocalist Janice Borla (whose earlier Tall Grass album 'Promises to Burn' was graced by both men) - as both a culmination and a launching point for wondrous music to come.