Agile Experiments – Challenger / Edwards / De Rose (Dave De Rose Records, 2022) **** ~ The Free Jazz Collective

By Sammy Stein

Agile Experiments are Dave De Rose on drums, John Edwards on double bass, and Tom Challenger on tenor saxophone. This is an uncut live performance recorded in 2021 at Unit 58 (Tottenham, London, UK).

The music is immense; At times, the trio blends so well that definition between the instruments is momentarily lost, not least due to the percussive beats delivered from the body of the double bass. Rules, conventions, and expectations of delivery go by the by from the off.

The trio manages to create a river of sound which weaves its way across genres and definitions. Any combination of squeals, booms, squeaks, warbles, and deftly exposed intricacies seems to be understood by every trio member, creating a sense of flow, a united and well-tuned collective form of playing which inspires and lifts the listener. Each soloes, each supports and each blends with the others at times. Gentle sometimes, wild and menacing, at others, the music takes on characters like a puppet show, each given life and a lifespan of its own.

Agile Experiments is a collaborative project born out of experimenting with unhinged spontaneous creativity and surprising encounters between musicians and audiences that have generated the participation of over 35 musicians and dancers on the UK scene and several on the Greek scene.

Dave De Rose is an Anglo-Italian multi-instrumentalist, producer, composer, educator, and sound engineer based in London. He graduated from The Guildhall with distinction and won their artist development award while working on both live and recordings. In recent years, he has built a reputation for fearless sonic explorations in freely improvised jazz-related or non-commercial noise-based music absorbing sound-art blended with a bold and original approach to grooves. He has self-released 22 records on his label (Dave De Rose Records) and toured and recorded with artists including Moloko, Roisin Murphy, Bastille, Mark Ronson and The Business International, Jamie Cullum, Scroobius Pip, Raul Monsalve y Los Forajidos, Forest Binary, Vula Viel and Trio Trekke. Both his recent projects, Agile Experiments, and Plants Heal, have caught the imaginations of musicians and the underground experimental jazz community worldwide.

Tom Challenger is a saxophonist, composer, educator, and sideman. He leads Brass Mask, which performs music inspired by traditional street music and collective improvisation and is also part of church organ/sax duo Wedding Music, explorative jazz quartet Dice Factory and electronic-improv outfit Ma.

John Edwards is a virtuoso with a staggering range of techniques who has redefined the possibility of the double bass and expanded its role. He has played with Sunny Murray, Derek Bailey, Joe McPhee, Lol Coxhill, Peter Brötzmann, Mulatu Astatke, and many others, including a trio with the late and very great John Russell on guitar and Evan Parker on sax. In 2017 I was honored to have John as a guest playing at the London Jazz Platform – a day of improvised and traditional jazz held in London and sponsored by the supportive US radio station Jazz Bites.

The recording has two tracks of over twenty minutes but rest assured, each track feels like many. Both ‘Industry Secrets’ and ‘Python Hustle’ are nigh perfect examples of freely improvised music with the musicians listening acutely to each other and picking up ideas, reflecting and echoing, while at other times, introducing new ideas – some of which are taken and run with, others not – it feels a collective decision. In ‘Industry Secrets,’ there is that uncanny connection between the musicians which, at times, feels as if the instruments overlap and become intricately entwined, yet they disentangle themselves at intervals to demonstrate some other facet pertinent to their instrument.

In ‘Python Hustle,’ Challenger’s sax introduces melodic discourse, which Edward’s bass carries for a while, then takes apart, the deep thrumming reflecting the melody. At the same time, the sawing and resonant body hits add a rhythmic disparity of noise which is mesmerising—topped by the rhythmic passages of the drums, tempered by a lightening of touch and even silences creating a deep sonic picturesque landscape. ‘Industry Secrets’ holds more deep bass than ‘Python Hustle,’ but to a great extent, the two tracks bear so much similarity they can be listened to as a continuous performance – which of course, they are. The middle section of ‘Python Hustle’ has a Latin touch, with sax and drums duetting while Edwards adds thrums and sighs from the bass. The pounding picks up, tempered by short silences, into which the bass and sax drop, the sax adding melody and the bass almost whispered caresses of rhythmic patter. From the eight-minute mark or so of ‘Python Hustle,’ the complexity increases, the layers become entwined, and the three musicians create something intuitive, deeply mesmeric, and captures the essence of closely matched musicians playing live. The reactions of the musicians and the way they pick up on each others’ changes are astounding and ultimately are what makes this a journey felt by the listener too. At one stage, the bass works up a key on the strings, sawing, bowing, and thunking in turn but maintaining the progress, over which the others add strange and also tuneful episodes, creating a change in atmosphere, a lightness of touch, tempered by a heavy-handed thumping thematic working. In short, a piece with so much involved – the changes, the atmospheres, and the different paces it feels like many. The relentless drive to the end of the piece leaves the breathless listener.

This is glorious, live, improvised music, and there is not much more to be said than that, except brilliant.

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