Graded on a Curve:
New York United,
New York United

New York United is saxophonist Daniel Carter, electronic specialist Tobias Wilner of the Danish duo Blue Foundation, bassist Djibril Toure, known for his work with Wu-Tang Clan, and drummer Federico Ughi. New York United is a collaboration blending jazz of the progressive/ avant-garde variety with contemporary, often beat-driven electronic sounds; at their best, which is often, they connect with the vitality of a well-seasoned band. New York United is their debut album, recorded in 2016 and belatedly released right about now, on vinyl in an edition of 300 copies and digitally with a bonus track. It’s in stores February 8 via 577 Records.

For a style that some are eager to declare as being moribund if not altogether dead, jazz is a wonderfully resilient and multifaceted thing, in part because, purists be damned, a portion of its makers have reliably strained against the music’s supposed boundaries. This pursuit for fresh possibilities often included engaging with forms outside the realms of jazz, and with the expected critical blowback, whether it be pop, classical, R&B, or rock.

Yeah, the blowback. One of the nicer developments in the last quarter century (or thereabouts) is the decrease in opprobrium over crosspollination (to be followed by varying degrees of reevaluation), meaning that one need not shake off the burden of somebody else’s vented spleen (or conversely, uncritical enthusiasm), the better to absorb the music on its own merits, good or bad.

New York United land securely on the positive side of the landscape as they have direct ties to precedent, specifically the intersection of the jazz avant-garde, electronica and hip-hop that comprises a significant portion of the Thirsty Ear label’s Blue Series. Indeed, alongside pianist Matthew Shipp and bassist William Parker, both Blue Series mainstays, Daniel Carter was a contributor to some of that initiative’s most crucial entries.

Perhaps the most notable examples would be Masses (with drum and bass duo Spring Heel Jack, saxophonists Evan Parker and Tim Berne, etc.), Antipop Vs. Matthew Shipp (with hip-hoppers Antipop Consortium, drummer Guillermo E. Brown, vibraphonist Khan Jamal, etc.) and High Water (with future Run the Jewels emcee El-P, Parker, Shipp, Brown, trombonist Steve Swell, and trumpeter Roy Campbell).

All this may imply that Carter is the driving force behind New York United, but while he’s the elder of the group (with his playing here as robust as ever, if not at peak fieriness), the bio background points to Ughi as the unifying hub in the group’s reality, as he’s the one guy to have made music with all the participants prior to this album’s recording.

Rome-born but a resident of NYC since 2000, Ughi’s improvised a whole lot with Carter, drummed for Wilner in Blue Foundation since 2012, and teamed-up with Toure as part of Major Taylor, described in this album’s promo text as a punk rock unit based in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. But if Ughi’s the common bond, New York United registers very much as a byproduct of collective baseline interaction, reportedly worked up from scratch in the studio.

This means creative equality as individuals share the same space, but not totally raw in the moment, as it’s stated that Wilner enhanced matters later with production and further molding. Indeed, along with a unified vision and some fine playing, New York United offers spontaneity and refinement in roughly equal measure, meaning those fearing a heaving blend of harried beats, tech splatter and skronk needn’t worry.

That’s in part because Wilner’s Blue Foundation has been described as a dream pop experience (as well as soundtrackers of feature films) rather than an exercise in the cacophonous, abstract, or Industrial. However, opener “Canal Street” is somewhat evocative of trip-hop but much more appealing than that might sound, as the beat is big and ambiance full-bodied; prior to Ughi’s entrance, the electronics work up a nice tension hinting at (but never fully embodying) the glitchy that’s offset by Carter’s somewhat ’70s soundtrack-like flute.

After Ughi jumps in, Carter lays out for a bit as the electronics get thick (there’s a tasty looped vocal sample). But then in comes the trumpet; given the efforts toward stylistic fusion here one could easily envision Miles, and yet that association’s far from inevitable. One could just as easily think of Roy Campbell or Wadada Leo Smith.

At just short of eight minutes, “Canal Street” is still a tidy thing, though “125th Street” breaks eleven, effectively stretching out as a redirect in construction keeps the progression from wearing thin. Rather than bring Blue Foundation’s dream pop sensibility to the table, the piece continues to lean into cinematic possibilities, particularly ’70s-’80s action flick suspense-building but without faltering into overkill or succumbing to the retro.

This is doubly impressive, as Toure’s bass distortion lends a little funk-menace to the scenario. Carter remains on trumpet, improvising with assurance while Ughi keeps incessant time. Most importantly, the electronics add depth rather than feeling grafted on or clichéd. Later, after the rhythm steps momentarily to the fore, Wilner’s contribution swirls around Carter’s return, accenting, offsetting, and even altering the horn through processing and echo.

Shades of Jon Hassell maybe, but it gives way to passages redolent of electronic Mbira and then a moment mildly reminiscent of Steve Reich’s use of mallet percussion. Side two’s “Nostrand Ave.” begins in similar movielike fashion, adopting an atmosphere in which all hell breaking loose seems imminent, but this time Carter’s on saxophone. Things don’t end up exploding, but rather they morph into a sorta funhouse surrealism aided in large part by a killer loop of what sounds like organ.

Roughly halfway through the track, the scene again shifts and here the dream pop textures rise up, though what ensues also recalls Third Eye Foundation. With a switch to flute, suspense is back on the front burner, but this time it’s like drifting down a tropical river in a boat. Back on sax, the music takes its most jazzlike turn, with Ughi’s rolling at times a bit like prime Rashied Ali. Above it all, Wilner’s input hovers mightily.

Contrasting sharply with the 17 minutes of “Nostrand Ave.,” vinyl closer “Flatbush Ave.” is a concise three, finding Carter blowing sax in what’s essentially a ’90s club dance context, but hearty and appealingly trippy. It’d make a terrific A-side to a 45. But what to put on the flip? Possibly an edit of digital bonus “East Flatbush.”

Celluloid tension? Yeah. This time, it’s like being stowed away on a spacecraft in an early ’80s Alien knockoff inexplicably but wonderfully scored by Jack DeJohnette, a flute-wielding Charles Lloyd, and a young Melvin Gibbs. Jump ahead 20 years and this soundtrack gets remixed by a young Wolfgang Voigt. Overall, it’s some potent gravy.

Sure, this release could’ve benefitted from a bit more lung fury and/ or rhythmic thunder, but it’s not like there’s a lack. Emblematic of the track titles on their record, New York United just chose a different, and ultimately quite rewarding, avenue.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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