Graded on a Curve:
Sabir Mateen, Patrick Holmes, Federico Ughi, Survival Situation

Those who crave the intensity and beauty of free jazz might already be familiar with 577 Records of Brooklyn. However, as the label’s been quite busy of late, it’s a good idea to spotlight one of their more recent releases that’s also received a limited-edition vinyl pressing, namely Survival Situation from multi-instrumentalist Sabir Mateen, clarinetist Patrick Holmes, and drummer (and 577 co-founder) Federico Ughi. While some of 577’s newer stuff has ventured into electronic regions and even mingled with bluegrass and Americana, this set falls nearer to the classic free jazz tradition while incorporating a wide range of instruments including Mateen on Farfisa Matador. The black, yellow, or cyan wax is out now.

Sabir Mateen is the veteran of this trio and by a considerable stretch, which explains why he is top billed on the cover. His background is rewardingly wide-ranging, with his first appearances on record coming through the Pan-Afrikan Peoples Arkestra, a community-based aggregation organized by the undersung West Coast pianist-composer Horace Tapscott.

Originally issued on double vinyl by Nimbus West Records (a label specifically set up to document the work of Tapscott), Live at I.U.C.C. was reissued in 2019 as a triple LP (but with no extra stuff) by the Outernational Sounds imprint, a subsidiary of Honest Jon’s. With two compositions credited to Mateen including the side-long “Village Dance,” Live at I.U.C.C. features his tenor saxophone, which can also be heard on the two live tracks added to the CD and LP reissues of the PAPA’s Flight 17, originally from ’78, and on Dial ‘B’ for Barbra, a 1981 session by the Horace Tapscott Sextet.

This Tapscott-era material lays the foundation for Mateen’s subsequent work as an ensemble player, which is highlighted by performances with Sun Ra at various times from the ’80s up to ’91, and as part of Cecil Taylor’s large band from 2002-’05; in addition, he’s recorded in the groups of Marc Edwards, Mark Whitecage, Dennis Gonzalez, Steve Swell, Matthew Shipp, Gunter Hampel, and William Parker.

What the Tapscott stuff doesn’t do is indicate the sheer breadth of Mateen’s artistry as a leader and as a collaborator in multiple leaderless combo settings. Naturally, there are myriad ways to explore the man’s range, but for the purposes of this review, a few words in praise of his releases for the Eremite label are particularly germane.

Divine Mad Love, recorded by the Sabir Mateen Trio, was released by Eremite in 1997, landing in the vicinity of two duo sessions, one, We Are Not at the Opera, with the late free jazz drum giant Sunny Murray, and the other, Getting Away With Murder, with the also passed drummer Tom Bruno, cut live in Grand Central Station from 12:48-1:33 pm on February 28, 1995 in the midst of subway commuters and complete with the occasional train announcements, chatter and “thank you”s for tips.

Ben Watson astutely compares Mateen’s playing on the CD to Frank Lowe, but in its exploratory warmth the tenor sax also extends from those early days with Tapscott. While challenging, it’s still a welcoming sound, and it contrasts a bit from the wilder, more uncompromising free jazz Bruno and Mateen play in the quartet Test with bassist Matt Heyner and fellow multi-horn man Daniel Carter.

The recordings of Test, one each for Jazz Ramwong, AUM Fidelity, and Ecstatic Peace! and two for Eremite, date from 1998-2000 (though the last, the 2CD Always Coming From the Love Side, which documents a November 1999 show at Chicago’s Velvet Lounge, wasn’t released until 2016), get as close as I’ve ever heard to the dictionary definition of ecstatic jazz. I’ll go as far as claiming the Test recordings I know (a couple, including their only vinyl, Ahead! on Jazz Ramwong, are scarce now) stand up as some of the finest jazz to spring from the ’90s avant renaissance.

Therefore, the band is always worthy of acclaim. What’s sorta amazing is that this group, at times highly “out,” also played as part of the Music Under New York initiative that produced Getting Away With Murder. Test also showcases Mateen in multi-instrumental mode, with this versatility extending to Survival Situation. Furthermore, Test partnered him in liberated breathing with Carter, who co-founded 577 with Ughi, the very drummer for this LP.

Ughi is a native of Rome who in the 1990s studied with the late pianist Paul Bley; since 2000, he’s lived in NYC and has over 40 releases to his credit, the majority of them on 577, which began releasing music in 2001. Unsurprisingly, he and Carter have played and recorded together a whole lot, though Ughi has accumulated roughly eight or so releases as leader, with the latest, from last year, the excellent Transoceanico, a trio album with tenor saxophonist Rachel Musson and bassist Adam Lane.

This leaves Texan transplant Holmes as what 577 describes as the up-and-comer of this trio and sets up one of the sweeter scenarios in jazz, specifically veterans and younger players getting down to business together. But no greenhorn is Holmes, as he shines on four prior albums for 577. So it is here: Holmes’ clarinet is the first instrument heard on Survival Situation’s opener, “Freedom of Souls,” with Ughi and Mateen entering shortly thereafter.

Although Mateen plays saxophone, clarinet and flute on this LP, he’s heard first on the Farfisa Matador, a model dating from the 1970s that considerably deepens the stated influence of Sun Ra. But it also allows Holmes to shine as the featured horn, his playing lithe and assured with heft that’s reminiscent of the sax rather than the copious upper-register fluttering of so many prior clarinetists.

“Freedom of Souls” has a few delightful turns, like a stretch five minutes in where things quiet down to just Ughi’s light rhythm before Mateen emerges vocally with an overload of reverb and thoughts on the record’s title. It’s a surprise on first listen, but every time the song’s played since it’s impossible for me to not imagine Mateen moving across the studio toward the microphone to deliver this vocal excursion. That’s what’s known as bonus value, folks.

The sessions for this record took place in Jambona Lab in Pisa, Italy, near Mateen’s current home. The three freely improvised and the LP was then assembled in studio from the tapes. Across the vinyl’s four tracks (there is one digital bonus cut) the essence of free improv is retained alongside the judiciousness of editing; this is not an album of highs and lows.

The next track “Souls,” a shorter excursion at under five minutes, has the horns of Mateen and Holmes intertwining to superb effect. Ughi’s time spent with his toms and cymbals is appreciated as it brings an added layer of free psychedelia, a quality familiar from his playing elsewhere. Concluding the track is Mateen’s tough excursion on tenor.

For “Layers of Sound,” Mateen enters on flute, though there is also some keyboard input that suggests the use of pedals or a similar apparatus; the playing certainly doesn’t sound like the byproduct of multitracking, but I wasn’t there; what do I know, really? Well, I know Holmes is blowing like a champ. Also, Mateen’s fluting is some of the best I’ve heard since I don’t know when. Maybe since the last record I checked out with Sabir Mateen playing flute on it.

“Clarifying” is the album’s other long track, which concludes the vinyl, and as the title sort of insinuates, is a glorious weave of searching clarinet. And yet also lyrical, especially in the stretch where Ughi lays out. When he comes back in so does the raucousness of Mateen’s tenor. The short non-LP bonus “You Can’t Touch That Because It Didn’t Hurt” is well worth downloading to your preferred digital device, as it offers some of Mateen’s heartiest saxophone, with Holmes and Ughi thoroughly in the mix.

Survival Situation makes clear that 577’s venturing into electronics and such isn’t indicative of a redirection away from the avant-jazz they have excelled at for nearly the whole of the 21st century. Sabir Mateen, Patrick Holmes, and Federico Ughi’s improvising adds to another fine year for 577 as they inch nearer to that 20th anniversary.


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