It’s not often that I bring up Tool in my jazz reviews, but saxophonist Rich Halley’s The Shape of Things constantly reminds me of those lyrics from the song “Schism”–“I know the pieces fit, cuz I watched them fall away.” I have a confession to make when it comes to the honest evaluation of free jazz, and it’s this: sometimes I sit there and absorb the chaos and I think I could do this. It’s a conundrum straight out of a Jackson Pollack painting, that you’re forgetting what it took to arrive at this point. Rich Halley (website) never lets you forget that.
The Shape of Things almost has a stream of consciousness feel, but not in the usual free jazz sense. It flows in and out of that chaos, focuses, and suddenly this quartet (pianist Matthew Shipp, bassist Michael Bisio and drummer Newman Taylor Baker) is swinging through classic bebop. Then it isn’t. Then it is. The pieces, guided by Rich Halley and his wild and passionate sax, are being put back together. He’s showing you how they fit. He’s the IKEA of free jazz. He’s Tool.
Maybe I’ve gone off on an equally wild and passionate tangent here, but it’s always with a big dollop of caution that I discuss and review free jazz. I know there’s a limited audience for it. Even Colleen politely requests that I refrain from playing free jazz while she’s home. But I’ll throw in a twist for the audiophiles–some of the free jazz I listen to has astonishing sound quality. The Shape of Things, quite simply, sounds fantastic, and that is one of the tools (pun intended) we jazz lovers can use to dissect what’s going on. There are moments in The Shape of Things where Rich Halley and his crew dive so deeply into their instruments, and with such concentration, that you can feel them slipping away and returning over and over. There’s a clarity to the whole process that’s fascinating.
There’s one more sure-fire way to appreciate Rich Halley, and that’s to sit back and let the power of this music hit you right in the chest. Every few minutes of The Shape of Things is a surprise, but when the band unleashes its furious energy, the sheer force of letting go, you will be in awe. If you can wrap your ears around that idea, you have the keys to get through the door.