I’ve always been a sucker for contrasting elements that wind up making more of themselves than initially seems possible. You know, the old 1 + 1 = 3 thing, where the recipe contents are seemingly at odds with each other, but the yield is epic. Cecil Taylor attacking the upper register of his piano while Tony Williams taps at that high-hat in “Morgan’s Motion.” Or Malachi Favors flailing at his bass as Lester Bowie evokes some sweetie-pie romance on the trumpet during one of the Art Ensemble’s excursions. Dissonance has its poetic side and in the right hands contrarian notions can produce a rich form of consonance – beauty lurking within the friction.
Food, the ever-shifting Euro ensemble centering on Norwegian percussionist Thomas Strønen and UK saxophonist Iain Ballamy, milks this tack for manna on their third ECM album, This is not a miracle. Joined by Austrian guitarist Christian Fennesz (who helped them calibrate their last two ECM discs, Quiet Inlet and Mercurial Balm), they set a series of pacific maneuvers against a backdrop of percolating beats and fuzzy guitar clouds, and with each new turn captures an antsy eloquence that blends art music extravagance with modern pop pith. “The Concept of Density” features a galloping drum pattern effected with brushes, a string of laconic tenor peels that gives the music a heartache vibe, and some humid guitar shading that momentarily turns to gnarled guitar scraping. On paper these elements could be strangers who have just met at a bus stop. But by the time the track subsides, they feel like family. “Exposed To Frost” puts that same plaintive horn sound on a turbulent bedrock of churning electronic drones and skittish trap set punctuations. Somehow, it evokes tranquility.
To deem the jazz might be fibbing a bit; these pieces aren’t concocted in real time. Each member of Food is a skilled improviser and together the trio hit the studio to cut their initial sketches. But this time out Strønen was trying to capture something a bit more focused than the inspired ramblings of the past, so he brought the files back to his home studio for editing. Fragments were looped and phrases realigned to concoct new textures or re-contour melodies. Call it a 2015 extension of Teo Macero’s work with Miles’ electric stuff, and deem the result as a second cousin to Eno’s Music For Films.
A vibe of gentility courses through the program, but there are moments when everything leans forward as well. “Where The Dry Desert Ends” steamrolls with a cascading synth riff, and a thick Fennesz guitar lick brings a tasty hook to the hubbub of “Sinking Gardens of Babylon.” Interplay is not forsaken, it’s just stacked according to Strønen’s design sense. His electronics are nudged to the fore here as well, and they temper the final result as much as Ballamy’s sax does. It’s not the first electro-acoustic session to turn heads with its articulate manipulation of textures – forebears exist in Wayne Horvitz’s moody pieces with The President and the Nine Below Zero trio. But it’s definitely a memorable one. Clatter has a sensual side; hip-hop taught us that years ago, and there are several moments where I can hear an R&B futurist like FKA Twigs spitting a rash of whispered lyrics over the heartbeat pulse that Team Strønen has built. That’s one of their music’s many intrigues – its pliability is seductive.