Review: James McKain, Caleb Duval, James Paul Nadien – Dancing

New England has long been a breeding ground for avant-garde jazz and other creative music, but it seems like right now the region – especially Connecticut – is having its moment in the spotlight of skronk. The local collective behind the record label firstname lastname has been busily releasing music throughout 2022; Dancing is the latest issue from this label as of early January 2023. It’s a free improv trio album featuring Caleb Duval on electric bass (a member of the firstname lastname collective), James McKain on tenor sax and James Paul Nadien on drums. All three are becoming increasingly recognized as exciting, highly individual players and improvisers.

The Bandcamp description of Dancing calls it “stupid music for stupid people.” I’m pretty sure I understand why – and this is in no way a put-down. The freedom of pure improvisation feels a little like having nothing in your head. Perhaps everything in your head has been replaced by dancing. And here we get the origin of this album’s title – Dancing and its three constituent tracks “In”, “Your”, and “Head” are named after one of the all-time masterpieces of free jazz, Ornette Coleman’s 1975 album Dancing In Your Head. In all three tracks on Dancing, McKain and Duval develop the theme from “Theme From A Symphony”, the song whose two takes fill up most of the Coleman album. This is a very simple theme – some may even call it kind of stupid, though as all the great improvisers have taught us, there is really nothing too stupid to play. Or, to use a completely apocryphal anti-quote that I once misattributed to some famous person or other but which I almost certainly made up, “all the geniuses of the world have never been afraid to be a little stupid.”

Dancing is short but feels long – not much over a half hour in total length, but divided into only three tracks, around twelve minutes each. It’s a loud, cathartic and boisterous album. All three musicians are really blasting almost throughout, and despite (or perhaps because of) the explosive energy no one really steps on the others’ toes. They are certainly listening to each other while each contributes their own individual chaos. Duval has the largest sonic palette of this trio, alternating freely between melodic lines (with and without distortion) and more static beds of noise. Neither of the Jameses contribute many extended techniques on their respective instruments; both find their intensity in raw acoustic power. There is no steady pulse anywhere in “In” or “Your.” “Head” has more of a well-defined form, going into tempo both before and after two minutes of solo bass – really the only solo improv on the album.

The “Theme From A Symphony” theme, which first appears around the middle of “In”, is given a new character in this not-quite-a-tribute album. Duval and McKain repeat the theme manically and ritualistically; more of a chant than a hook, it’s conducive to a rather different kind of (?head-)dancing than the original. McKain often adds an embellishment to both phrases of the theme, which accentuates the folkloric element inherent in so simple a melody. At these times, even without a steady tempo, it sounds kind of jiggy – perhaps like a broken carousel organ stuck on a little bit of “Pop Goes The Weasel” (…Walter?) Besides the allusions to the actual theme, I would say the in-tempo part in the middle of “Head” – before the solo bass – also reminds me of “Theme From A Symphony” and its bubbly, bouncy energy, simultaneously grooving and not grooving.

One last element of Dancing I should mention is its humor. Duval comes up with some goofy combinations of shred and noise, and Nadien’s disco groove near the end of “Head” is somehow on the wholesome back end of irony. There is classic free-jazz comedy in the endings of “In” and “Head”, with Duval and McKain respectively overstepping the conclusion of the ensemble climaxes. Of course there is subtle humor in Ornette Coleman’s music too, and the embrace of absurdity by McKain, Duval, and Nadien seems like a fitting tribute. They seem to know, like Coleman surely did, that stupid is not just for stupid people. There are places out there that you can only get to if you have nothing in your head but dancing.

Elijah ShifferReview: James McKain, Caleb Duval, James Paul Nadien – Dancing