Creative jazz will always retain its capacity to surprise as long as groups like saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock's Anti-House are performing and recording. Strong Place, the ensemble's 2013 sophomore album released by Intakt, is filled with unpredictable twists and turns that keep the listener guessing, while the music nonetheless coheres through recurring motifs and the bandmembers' intuitive grasp of Laubrock's compositional and improvisational language. "An Unfolding" is aptly titled and appropriately placed as the opening track, anticipatory at the start with drawn-out lines from the leader on soprano matched by John Hébert's arco bass, the piece's harmonic development embellished by Mary Halvorson's steady guitar picking, Kris Davis' inside-the-piano explorations, and drummer Tom Rainey's percussive commentary. Slowly building tension is broken by brief, playful interludes that are suggestive but but not quite revelatory, until Laubrock, Halvorson, and Rainey break into a freewheeling improvisation, soon interrupted by Davis' full chordal attack, twinned deeply by Hébert, providing a foundation over which Laubrock solos with assertiveness and vibrancy. "Der Deichgraf" begins with Davis' skittering pianism joined by Laubrock and Halvorson's Morse code-like notes while Rainey throws in precise accents until, after a brief pause, Hébert joins the drummer in a stop-start rhythmic tandem beneath Laubrock's tenor, poised between late-night vibrato-laden rumination and something more animated. The saxophonist's extemporizations flirt thematically with the full band's herky-jerky buildup, and the piece ends as Halvorson cuts loose with a roughly distorted solo over a striding marchlike rhythm from Laubrock and Davis, nearly -- but not quite -- pulled apart by Rainey and Hébert in a looser free jazz mode.
"Count 'Em" begins suggesting a fractured, disassembled dirge but, after a tenor-bass duo feature subtly and then pointedly joined by the other bandmembers supporting Laubrock's escalating urgency, the group segues into a genuinely jazzy -- though tightly composed -- frolic: bright, melodic, and filled with sprightly unison punctuations. "From Farm Girl to Fabulous, Vol. 1," like the preceding "Der Deichgraf," also pulses with repetitive notes suggesting both stasis and movement, with the tension released in a tenor-bass-drums jam enlivened by Laubrock's robust multiphonics. With buoyant soprano and guitar lines over insistent piano arpeggios, "Alley Zen" is followed by the title track, as Davis (back inside the piano) and Rainey provide rolling percussive undercurrents beneath deep, measured rubato themes from tenor, guitar, and arco bass. Revisiting the most engaging, uptempo jazziness of "Count 'Em," the spirited romp "Cup in a Teastorm" (for Henry Threadgill) displays Anti-House at their tightest, its angular arrangement in no way slowing down the band's brisk momentum -- or Davis' display of chops on a killer piano feature. "Here's to Love" is a probing and atmospheric closer, a slow and spacious coda with hints of melancholic lyricism, seemingly toasting the mystery of love as equally as love itself. With consistent avoidance of the obvious, Strong Place reveals new facets and pleasures with each listen, marking it as an album you will want to return to again and again.