In recent years, some of the most interesting and evocative jazz albums -- including Anouar Brahem's The Astounding Eyes of Rita and the Wolfert Brederode Quartet's Post Scriptum -- have featured someone playing the bass clarinet slowly and carefully in a way that recalls some of the most interesting and evocative jazz albums of all time, Fusion and Thesis by the Jimmy Giuffre 3 (later collected as 1961). Which may explain why, despite featuring the nimble, expressive, and yes interesting and evocative fingers of pianist Matthew Shipp, Live at Okuden really gets its mood, and thus its mojo, from the bass clarinet, alto sax, soprano clarinet, and flute playing of Mat Walerian.
Recorded live on May 15, 2012 during the Okuden Music Concert Series in Torun, Poland -- a gathering founded and curated by Walerian -- Live at Okuden is a moody masterpiece that recalls the aforementioned albums by Brahem, the Wolfert Brederode Quartet, and the Jimmy Giuffre 3, but in a way that's even more spartan (for obvious reasons). And most of the credit for this goes to Walerian who, like the clarinet players on those albums, doesn't play like he's in a Dixieland band, but more like someone who just got kicked out of a Dixieland band…only to go home and find that his wife has left him and taken all their money. And their dog. And his Xbox.
This isn't to say Walerian and Live at Okuden doesn't get peppy sometimes (or that his playing is all that bluesy, either). Throughout the album -- especially during "Free Bop Statement One," "Free Bop Statement Two," and "Encore" -- Walerian gets downright rambunctious, with Shipp following him every step of the way, while the two get rather playful during "It's Sick Out There." Shipp has never been afraid to veer into free jazz territory, though usually while his playmates stay the course, and here, both he and Walerian shows the same predilection.
But the best moments on Okuden are the ones where the players are matched in mood and intent, and both are dark. Best typified by the songs "Introduction," "Black Rain," and "Blues for Acid Cold," Live at Okuden paints a picture in shades of black and grey, but with occasional bits of noisy dissonance. It's mournful, contemplative, and sad, and even when it is a bit aggro, it's still hauntingly beautiful.
What's truly engaging about Live at Okuden, though, is how the songs flow from one to the next -- save for the last one, "Encore" -- to form a lengthy suite that ebbs and flows, building to a crescendo in "Love and Other Species," only to calm back down in "Peace and Respect" and then "Black Rain."
None of the above is meant in any way to diminish the contributions of Shipp, though. Like those who accompanied the clarinet players on those aforementioned albums -- oudist Brahem, bassist Bjorn Meyer, and percussionist Khaled Yassine on Brahem's album; pianist Brederode, double-bassist Mat Eilertsen, and drummer Samuel Rohrer on Brederode's; and pianist Paul Bley and double-bassist Steve Swallow on Giuffre's -- it is Shipp's effortlessly flowing and nubile piano playing that provides Walerian with a solid foundation on which to sit quietly, contemplating the day. And that's not even mentioning the many moments when Shipp takes the lead while Walerian provides some moody atmospherics. (Though I also freely admit that, having heard Shipp numerous times over the years, but having this as my first exposure to Walerian, I may be taking the former and his expert piano playing for granted a little. Sorry, dude.)
In fact, the only bad thing I can say about Live at Okuden -- well, besides wishing the CD had come in a sturdy plastic case instead of a cardboard contraption that's already getting worn out -- is that it's the first, and so far only, recording these guys have made together. I couldn't even find some other live recordings on the web; and believe me, I looked. No matter. Because if the glorious sixty-seven-plus minutes of Live at Okuden is any indication, this won't be this twosome's last collaboration. I just hope I don't have to wait long until the next time they hit the "record" button. - Paul Semel
Paul Semel has been writing about music for more than twenty-five years. You can read more of his music reviews on his site, paulsemel.com.