Graded on a Curve: Federico Ughi, Transoceanico

Drummer Federico Ughi is no stranger to this column. A Rome-native who splits time between his home country and Brooklyn, he’s drummed on a few dozen records since emerging on disc in the late ’90s, many of them, like this one, on the label he founded, 577 Records. Included in that number are LPs reviewed here by multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter and the electronic-jazz collective New York United. With Transoceanico, Ughi celebrates the 20th anniversary of his first album with a striking free-jazz trio session featuring British tenor saxophonist Rachel Musson and bassist Adam Lane. It’s a searching, raw-toned delight for avant-jazz fans, out now on vinyl and digital.

The opening moments of Transoceanico’s opener “So Far So Good” sparked quick thoughts of ’60s ensembles like The New York Art Quartet and the New York Contemporary Five, outfits that were in the thick of the jazz New Thing (as it was then sometimes called) in the years prior to Fire Music really taking hold. This is a sometimes-underrated period in the history of avant-jazz, but it remains quite important in the documentation of how individuals and groups extended the innovations of Ornette Coleman shortly after his emergence on the scene

As Coleman is cited as a major influence on Ughi’s music as well as a mentor, the multifaceted connection here isn’t a surprise. Furthermore, as Transoceanico’s intense but digestible 43 minutes unwinds, a major point of comparison would be Coleman’s classic ’60s trio, the one that was the core of the pretty good Town Hall, 1962 for ESP-Disk and both volumes of the absolutely essential At the “Golden Circle” Stockholm.

And it’s not like there’s any anxiety on the part of Ughi over Coleman’s influence, as one of the tracks here is titled “Sky Ramblin’,” which I’m assuming is a nod to the opening cut from Ornette’s 1960 classic Change of the Century. Additionally, the reference to the sky wraps up nicely with the drummer’s choice of album title and cover art as the record explores the theme of home and how it has grown in his experience to encompass Rome, NYC, and London (where he lived in the late ’90s and where his first release was made), and by extension travel (between Italy and New York obviously, but also touring).

I didn’t do any side-by-side comparisons here with Coleman’s stuff, but the similarity is prevalent on Transoceanico. Specifically, Lane and Ughi’s heightened interplay is reminiscent of the bassist David Izenzon and drummer Charles Moffett’s work in the aforementioned trio. Evocative of, but not in thrall to how they transcended the rhythmic support mode in that landmark group; for one example, Lane’s bowed bass in “Blues Apart” and elsewhere differs from Izenzon’s approach. And throughout the record, Ughi validates the comparison’s others have made to Tony Oxley and Rashied Ali.

Still, it’s Rachel Musson who delivers the most substantial point of departure. For starters, she plays tenor, where Coleman’s main horn was the alto, and while traces of the free-jazz titan’s playing aren’t necessarily absent as Musson traverses across Transoceanico’s often-thrilling landscape, her naturally rough tone in “So Far So Good” reminds me more than a little of ’60s Archie Shepp.

And so, Fire Music, but in the following track “Segnale Di Via Libera” she rachets up a level of intensity and for a few moments brought Charles Gayle to mind. She’s a lithe powerhouse on this record, but that she works herself up to full-boil roar-wail-scream-screech on this track and in general is a distinction in need of making, as Gayle is noted (some would say notorious) for exploding out the gate like a hurricane.

Given the saxophone’s prominence in jazz’s long history, a listener hearing all this without knowledge of the specifics might assume that it’s Musson’s record, but no. Instead, she’s returning to Ughi’s discography after contributing to his ’99 debut The Space Within (befitting the anniversary), though they have played together in the intervening time. Along with her own stuff, she’s also featured on releases by Alex Ward and on co-billed efforts with John Edwards, Mark Sanders, Steve Beresford, and Michael Caratti.

All this background elucidates the robustness of collaboration that elevates Transoceanico into something special, but it’s worth emphasizing that it’s indeed Ughi’s record, though it lacks any of the atmosphere familiar to certain drummer-led post-bop LPs. Instead, this is a collective experience bringing us back to the leaderless spirit of the New York Contemporary Five and others. Notably, amongst his numerous projects (e.g. solo, trio, and the ensemble Full Throttle) Lane recorded with the late saxophonist John Tchicai, one of the founders of the New York Art Quartet.

The solid minute of rhythmic interaction at the start of “Emergency Exit” and the superb drum solo opening “Sky Ramblin’” are just two examples of Ughi’s presence getting asserted in way that’s appealingly unforced; when Musson arrives in “Emergency Exit,” it’s with a gripping disregard for jazz niceties that suggests Ayler, Gayle again and Peter Brötzmann. And yet her presence in “Ramblin’,” the vinyl’s closing track is meditative in a way that’s comparable to but not imitative of John Coltrane.

One of Transoceanico’s stronger aspects is its trad-LP length. A resurgence of avant-jazz activity coincided with the compact disc boom, and that was cool, but in taking advantage of the format’s longer durational capacity, some of those CDs could get borderline grueling. That’s not the case here. But if the vinyl leaves you wanting more, there’s the digital-only bonus cut “Quando Andiamo” (included with the LP download), where Lane shines throughout and Musson begins in that more contemplative zone before launching into a final glorious bout of wild blowing. Ughi is exploratory and expressive, as well.

Overall, this record is testament to free improvisation’s undying worthiness. On another note, as this Women’s History Month winds down, the arrival of this LP finds Rachel Musson making some sweet history of her own. But hey, she’s been doing that for a good long while, alongside Adam Lane and Federico Ughi, in collaboration with others, and in charge of her own thing. Transoceanico solidifies that the future of avant-jazz is in strong, diverse hands. Kudos to Ughi for guiding this wonderful personal and ensemble statement into reality.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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