Album Reviews

Ma – The Last

(Loop) UK release date: 27 June 2011

The current generation of jazz musicians, particularly those based in and around London, is finding new ways of reshaping improvised music for a contemporary audience. In the case of Tom Challenger’s {ma} project, the result is an electrifying fusion of contemporary composition, improvisation and the murky atmospherics of dub. There is little doubt that Wynton Marsalis would not approve. At the very least, he would certainly not define it as jazz. Yet, whilst this music is not explicitly drawing from the swing or New Orleans traditions, it does still retain a number of the hallmarks of that music. Rhythm is a predominant factor, particularly in the form of displacement and syncopation. Ross Stanley’s dense organ swirls also provide a strong harmonic element, often dissonant and provocative. Improvisation is the means by which these pieces are developed and expanded and there is a chromaticism in keeping with the post-Dave Liebman and Steve Coleman landscape of contemporary jazz.

Perhaps more important than these fundamental elements of music though is the group’s interest in sound, timbre, texture and interaction. The terrifying Dump could easily be part of a nightmarish horror movie soundtrack (with a later track entitled Noir, it seems likely that this cinematic quality is more than just critics’ cliche). Crucial to its unnerving impact are the periodic spaces that punctuate drummer Dave Smith’s lurching, unpredictable rhythms. Although it’s clear that this recording captures skilled instrumentalists demonstrating their craft, it is also adventurous in its use of production techniques. The drums sound particularly fantastic, particularly when Smith flutters eerily with brushes.

Whilst it’s certainly likely that some will find this music uncomfortable and lacking melodic elegance, it’s worth noting how subtle and effective Tom Challenger’s melodic constructs are. On Virus, it appears as if he is somehow floating beneath the surface, his delicate, beautifully poised phrases almost being subsumed within their aquatic surroundings. Then, as the track progresses, he begins to rise above once again. The dynamic control of the entire ensemble creates a palpable sense of drama and danger.

The Last probably owes a slight debt to the recent album by another London improvisors collective Zed-U (a band featuring the talents of Shabaka Hutchings, Neil Charles and Tom Skinner) which explored broadly similar ground. However, that album, whilst excellent, never felt quite as menacing and unsettling as this. Part of the crafting of this atmosphere is certainly down to Challenger’s impressive restraint, but the electronics provided by Matt Calvert (also of excellent post-rock instrumentalists Three Trapped Tigers) also add tension. Things seem to culminate in the brutal, frighteningly loud explosion of energy on Anna Orra.

Unusually for an album of improvised music, The Last is somewhat fragmented, with few tracks stretching far beyond three minutes. Rather than seem distracting or rendering the album unfocused, this simply enhances an overriding sense that this music needs to be digested as a single whole. The Last feels like a coherent, carefully constructed mood piece that both demands and deserves attention.

buy Ma MP3s or CDs
Spotify Ma on Spotify

More on Ma
Ma – The Last