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This Musicship

Yuganaut

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Album Review

Get your boarding passes ready and queue up for an interstellar journey in This Musicship piloted by Yuganaut, a crew of three intrepid explorers skilled in traveling the byways of space and time in the spirit of such previous pathfinders as Sun Ra, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Miles Davis in his '60s and '70s electric period. Stephen Rush, Tom Abbs, and Geoff Mann create genuinely unpredictable soundscapes throughout this highly diverse disc, but always with attention to organic development and flow. Rush's "Stumblechuck," with its comparatively mainstream trio lineup of electric keyboards, bass, and drums in a happily swinging tempo, is one of the most conventional pieces here, although an almost kazoo-like Moog used to state the theme and overlay the Rhodes interjects a skewed sensibility. Rush's Moog work seems informed and inspired by the mighty Ra, but he also easily conjures up a Bitches Brew vibe. (The keyboardist has led an impressive Bitches Brew project as a faculty member of the University of Michigan.) Meanwhile, Rush grabs his euphonium when an improvisation calls for it — not to mention other handy items and embellishments like elk call, slide whistle, "frog," and "theatrics." Abbs might primarily be a bassist in Yuganaut, and a wildly inventive and nimble bassist at that, but he also wraps a tuba around himself and keeps a didgeridoo and violin within easy reach. And while Geoff Mann (Herbie's son) is a propulsive, hyper-swinging, and coloristic drummer, his vibes and cornet are also there as needed, along with mbira (which imparts a traditional African flavor to "Internal/External") and even mandolin.

Acoustic and electronic instruments are combined in a seemingly endless array of juxtapositions as the band moves from free-floating timbral/textural explorations of deep space to groove-based earthiness, outright noise, wild 'n' woolly unidentifiable sounds, and everything in between, sometimes guided by graphic scores. Highlights include the aforementioned "Stumblechuck," Mann's "Gobble Gobble," in which a midtempo off-meter vamp emerges out of formlessness to serve as foundation for a nicely cruising modal jazz workout (with the threesome playing both inside and outside the groove), and one of the most successful collective improvisations, "Perspective," which moves briskly from interlude to interlude (including a section bordering on outright — and uncharacteristic — menace) in nearly telepathic fashion. Wrapping everything up is a killer extended version of Rush's "Hymn for Roscoe," the title track from the keyboardist's 2000 quartet release that featured the Art Ensemble's Mitchell himself as guest. Here as performed by Yuganaut, the piece is an amalgam of freedom, funk, street march shuffle, and understated bluesy elegance (with some lovely arco work from Abbs in consort with Rush's clear-as-a-bell Rhodes), and once again an apt homage to the Chicago reed master. Moving well past the late jazz writer Whitney Balliett's "sound of surprise," Yuganaut prove that their chosen style of musical expression can be the sound of something genuinely startling. Free improvisation can also be the sound of something indulgent if not in the right hands, and the three multi-instrumentalists of Yuganaut thankfully avoid this potential pitfall in their spirited exchanges.

This Musicship, Yuganaut
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