Album Reviews

Outhouse – Straw, Sticks & Bricks

(Babel) UK release date: 4 April 2011

Outhouse, one of the flagship ensembles in London’s jazz co-operative the Loop Collective, have proved remarkably versatile in their sound and approach. Although they are undeniably distinctive, characterised by a dual saxophone frontline and expressive collective improvisation, they have kept themselves fresh and inventive by seeking new collaborations. Last year’s Outhouse Ruhabi saw them working with a number of musicians from Gambia, exploring rhythms and interplay. This time around, Icelandic guitarist Hilmar Jensson joins the mix, adding harmonic flavour and some menacing sounds. There is little doubt that these experiences have fed back into the regular musicians themselves, continually adding new elements to their conversational, texturally varied music. With this third album, they seem to be stretching out yet further.

Straw, Sticks & Bricks may lack the intricate rhythmic drive brought to proceedings by the percussionists in Ruhabi – but it compensates for this with inspired investigations into groove, texture and communication. This may well be the group’s most varied and assertive statement to date. With Kitchen In The Middle, the ensemble bursts straight out of the blocks with an urgent, aggressive clarion call demonstrating how immediate and visceral contemporary jazz can be. This excellent piece of writing combines the spontaneity and bravery of jazz with the directness and bracing power of rock. The dual tenor saxophone frontline provided by Robin Fincker and Tom Challenger sounds like an unstoppable force.

Unsurprisingly, the presence of Jensson (who has worked with New York drummer Jim Black’s group AlasNoAxis) adds to the sense that Outhouse are blurring boundaries. His contributions are sometimes muscular, but more often that that he operates in a more sophisticated way, contributing feeling and texture to the pieces. His protracted chordal shadings often create a disconcerting backdrop for the intertwining contributions of Fincker and Challenger. Much of Straw, Sticks & Bricks sounds brooding and mysterious as a result. Tom Challenger’s Bleak Sylvette is minimal and calm but with a hint of something sinister and unnerving.

Outhouse are clearly an ambitious, confident group – never more so than on Robin Fincker’s oustanding composition Fool, in which they move with fleet-footed ease through a variety of musical landscapes. It begins in abstraction, before snaking towards a punchy, attacking section, with brilliant constructed phrasing. Jensson’s brief solo is both inventive and excoriating, allowing for some inspired interaction with the rhythm section. The freer approach then returns at the end of the piece, providing a helpful reminder of its beginnings. Outhouse have an open-minded, sophisticated approach to compositional form.

The closing Long Notes reaffirms Outhouse’s commitment to the process of composition through improvisation. Drummer Dave Smith is in particularly free-flowing, creative form here. Although Fincker and Challenger emerge as the principal composers, this very much feels like a true ensemble work – a group of instrumentalists working together in a spirit of empathy and adventure.

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