I have never heard a Mike Nock album that I haven’t liked, and I’ve heard quite a few. Nock’s new outing, with the Waples brothers as rhythm section and a pair of guest wind players—Karl Laskowski on sax and Ken Allars on trumpet—is among my favourites (although his trio outings Ondas from 1982 for ECM [ECM1220], Changing Seasons of 2002 [DIW628], and the Duologue CD [BL009] with the legendary Dave Liebman, remain hard to beat—all now deleted, sadly). In these younger players, Nock has found ideal sidesmen; they bring youthful freshness and vigour to complement Nock’s magisterial surefootedness.
The opening title track begins with a wistful cadential theme allowing of some effective bass flourishes, and eventually leads into a township-flavoured faster section that is never permitted to break loose—and is all the more effective for its restraint. Track two, the oddly-named The Sibylline Fragrance, continues the mood of wistful understatement, but in a more sophisticated harmonic/melodic landscape rich with interrupted cadences. Trumpeter Ken Allars and Nock himself manage to wrest intense poignancy in their respective solos. After these two melancholy tracks comes something a good deal funkier: Colours, an edgy uptempo number that begins obsessively and continues with a minimalist solo from Nock before becoming increasingly dissonant and fractured, then resolving into valedictory melodic lines.
The middle track, After Satie, introduces yet another mood, a modal urban ballad that manages to indirectly homage both the Miles of Kind of Blue, and the song Too darn hot. The middle section with its doubletime bassline and urgently expressive wind shapes is astonishingly assured. I wonder if the following Komodo Dragon takes its name from the sinuously winding wind melody that Nock occasionally interrupts with archaic-sounding block fifths and out-of-kilter flurries? If Truth Be Known, the lengthy sixth track, returns to the styling of track one, but cast in the minor mode, giving it a rich sophistication that the two wind players slowly build, ably and almost imperceptibly assisted by Nock’s embellishments which eventually emerge into the foreground as a brief and passionate explosion. This solo is arguably the heart of the album, positioned as it is at the archetypal ‘climax moment’ of the material (both track and CD), and yet it is over in seconds. Unsurprisingly, after the driving intensity of If Truth Be Known, the culminatory track Slow News Day is a pensive, if bouncy, compound-duple-rhythm envoi that winds the music up elegantly.
The key to this album is its astonishing exactitude. Everything is judged perfectly: the balance of solo and ensemble playing is in perfect equilibrium; the path from track to track has an unarguable rightness; the phraseology is ideally suited to the material; nothing protrudes, or contradicts the various moods; subtle underpinning from the rhythm section articulates the expressive depth. But, also, if it has a weakness it is precisely its tidiness, that it would have been a treat to hear these masterly players fly a bit more perilously—I’d dearly love to hear this band play this material extendedly, live. Better still, a solo improvised session from Nock à la K Jarrett—one can but dream. In the meantime we just have to settle for this classiest of albums from this national treasure of a band.