Review: Alex Ward Quintet – Glass Shelves And Floor

Alex Ward Quintet - Glass Shelves And FloorThis isn’t just about conversation. So often, descriptions of improvisation focus on the “back and forth”. Listening, responding, listening again. Glass Shelves And Floor is a rich, visceral reminder that these collaborations are as much about third person perspective as they are about first and second. Not only do these five players deftly manoeuvre to accommodate and react to one another – moments of clarinet spite meet curt cello barks coming in the other direction, while fluid saxophone slurs are carried upon double bass legato, like an inflatable lounger carried a sunbather across a pool – but they exhibit an awareness of the quintet as a solitary mass. When all five members play simultaneously, the music crystallises into bold sculptures of harmony and texture; held dissonances create beautiful curves and slants, while woodwind skids into the spaces vacated by the upward glissandos of strings. Even when the piece descends into a rabble, letting the mind run slack and feral energy pour out, each member reserves a tiny morsel of mental capacity to stay aware of the shape and balance of the room as a whole. For instance, the end of the “studio” side culminates in two clarinets barking across stereo space in Morse code SOS as strings wobble like a boat capsizing beneath them. Amidst the illusion of chaos is the subconscious assignment of roles. Spoken lines. Places to stand.

There are little allusions to premeditated choreography. Fluttering duets where the instruments fall into impeccable rhythmic alignment. Unseen cues that initiate the entry and departure of each instrument. By the time I’ve clocked them, the music splays into a spaghetti of spontaneity again. Yet my suspicion that the immediacy might be a ruse loiters in my mind like a post-it note, and the players toy with it via flashes of synchronicity that disappear as quick as they come. Pre-planned or not, the piece navigates time in the most beautiful alternation of arcs and dips: smeared noise drains away to leave instruments in prickly solos, moments of fidgeting staccato smooth out into elegant drones, politeness snaps under the pressure of mounting impatience and the desire to selfishly interject. During these moments of transition, every single member commits wholeheartedly, as though steered into change by an omnipotent force that hangs over them all. As a result, the colours are always bright and the images are always vivid, intensified by dedication en masse.