Kevin Norton's Bauhaus Quartet

Time-Space Modulator

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The liner notes to Time-Space Modulator suggest that this first CD by Kevin Norton's Bauhaus Quartet, recorded live at Tonic and released on Barking Hoop in 2004, might embody some contradictions were one to consider the full implications of naming the ensemble after the early 20th century German design movement. As Bill Shoemaker writes, the utopian ideals of the Bauhaus school led to a sometimes "puritanical" zeal among its adherents, as well as "leaky flat roofs" in the movement's architectural applications. In Norton's band, however, one hears contrasts more than contradictions -- between structure and improvisation, between energy and calm -- and all results are fully intentional. On the opening "Mother Tongue," Norton and String Trio of New York bassist John Lindberg propel the piece with free jazz momentum, yet there is tension between the turbulent rhythm section and the long extended lines and emphatic punctuations of trumpeter Dave Ballou and tenor saxophonist Tony Malaby, who blow intensely yet, in true Bauhaus fashion, never clutter up the arrangement in a way that would obscure the underlying architectural foundation churning below. The landscape changes as the album progresses and the four-way collective improvisation of "Seoul Soul" (which Norton describes as the fullest example of the band's teamwork) and the swinging "Milt's Forward Looking Tradition" (an homage to Milt Hinton with a stunningly limber solo from Lindberg) make way for calmer interludes such as "Microbig," whose silences are as important an underpinning for the arc of Ballou's trumpet solo as are the carefully considered interjections of Norton's crystalline vibraphone, Lindberg's deep bass, and Malaby's breathy tenor. And the more thoroughly scored passages of the elegiac, canonical "Atie Aife" and the skewed post-bop "Difficulty" never limit the expressiveness of the musicians, who discover beauty in melodicism, counterpoint, and harmony while staying true to the modern creative jazz feel and spirit. The 13-plus-minute "Moonstruck" brings the CD full circle, in an energetic piece that seems to mirror "Mother Tongue" in both form and length, careening forward and setting Ballou and Malaby loose over Norton and Lindberg at full boil. Bauhaus, the design movement, had its leaders and visionaries but called for collaboration among craftspeople to achieve its ends, and Bauhaus, the quartet, draws upon a newer spirit of musical collaboration with roots in American free jazz and creative improvisation from the 1960s onward. To Kevin Norton, these two references to Bauhaus would seem to be very much part of the same continuum even if the contexts are markedly different. Norton understands that having trust in one's bandmates and providing them with plenty of room to maneuver enables them to deliver their very best. Now, as then, collaboration (sans an authoritarian hand) erases the boundaries between craft and art and unifies beauty and function -- and in the case of Time-Space Modulator, the functional aim is some wonderful forward-thinking jazz that you don't need a master's degree in design to enjoy.

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