Chicago art jazz quartet blink. have come a long way in a very short time. Despite being together less than two years, they have performed at festivals and on tour over five continents, been commissioned to score a ballet for the Peoria Ballet Company, and been commissioned to write for the International Contemporary Ensemble. Amazingly, since artists are rarely recognized so quickly in the places they call home, they have also received grants from the Illinois Arts Council. This quartet is led by composer and bassist Jeff Greene, with Quin Kirchner on drums, glockenspiel, and percussion; guitarist Dave Miller; and alto saxophonist Greg Ward. The 12-song, Greene-composed set contains rather provocative investigations of vanguard jazz as it interacts with electronics, mutant funk, and even post-rock. Greene's compositions are rooted in space and edgy drama, and have wide-open spaces for various kinds of improvisations; rarely does one player occupy the solo space without another (or even two) engaging him directly -- check the awesome "Misadventures" near the end of the album for a great example of this. If you're thinking "Ornette Coleman" you aren't far off, but this isn't harmolodics; these cats play a music that draws from other sources as well: think David Binney, Steve Coleman, and even fellow Chicagoan Jeff Parker. In many of these tunes, Ward's saxophone has a particularly contrapuntal relationship with Miller's electric guitar. It's not a competitive relationship, but a truly complementary one. Great evidence of this is on the wonderful "Rivers and Tides," where Ward solos against an up-and-down march tempo from Greene, who struts along for quite a while. Miller plays in the gaps as Kirchner dances slowly around the saxophonist, guitarist, and bassist, slowly but surely encircling them. As Ward picks up his pace, Miller becomes more active, moving directly into his saxophone lines, eventually traveling in a direction that feels more like Isis or Pelican than jazz -- but since the other players are all following Ward, jazz never gets left behind.
That said, it might be hard to take in the whole record in one sitting (at least the first time through), but that's not a criticism; it's wonderful that there are so many ideas being not only tossed around but caught by the quartet. "Glass" begins as a purely experimental, percussively wrought piece with glockenspiel, bells, and guitar effects (such as strumming methodically above the neck and fretboard where the strings meet the tuning pegs). A spare, languid melody begins to emerge from Ward, as Miller moves to the actual frets, and hand percussion as well as drums enter the frame to create an elastic pulse. Greene's bass draws the focus from all the other instruments, even as they articulate a lyric and harmonic frame that seem worlds apart, but are related sonically to the low notes in the bass and percussion. Within a couple of minutes the tension rises to fever pitch and the whole thing gets blown to hell without losing the melody. Where it ends is a complete surprise. These tunes are tight, labyrinthine, and often knotty, but they create unique spaces for the players to interact with one another while seeking to encounter different dimensions in harmonic communication. There isn't anything extra here -- no overplaying by any member -- and the kinds of tension that are constructed and released do not knock down the structure of a particular tune. The Epidemic of Ideas is not only an apt title for blink's debut, it's an advertisement for the kind of surprise and promise they deliver in spades.