Drummer Jack Mouse, multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, and vocalist Janice Borla get together on their January release Three Story Sandbox to demonstrate conclusively that free jazz needn’t be unstructured cacophony. They have developed a workable musical conversation that allows for both spontaneous experimentation and structural integrity.
Critics, however averse we have been to what is often the cluttered noise of free jazz, may well listen to what the trio has done in a comprehensive piece like the seven-part “Sandbox Suite” which opens the album, and find themselves rethinking that aversion. It, as the politicians will tell you, is always possible to change your mind with new information.
Three Story Sandbox, like the previous Mouse-Robinson collaboration Snakeheads and Ladybugs, is new information.
The idea of “suite” suggests order and structure. And while the individual titles of each of the pieces—“The Summons,” “The Forge,” “Conjuror,” “Across the Veld,” “Maelstrom, “Pas de Deux,” and “Blood Moon Rising”—may not immediately reveal any structural principle or theme, the music itself develops a consistent ambient soundscape, a natural one that is intense and magical.
Instead of working with the usual drum kit, Mouse trots out a collection of gongs and percussion instruments chosen especially for each piece—a Nepalese gong here, an Ojibway tortoise shell drum there. Robinson works with the tenor sax and flutes including the Navajo cedar flute on the first track. The instrumentation focuses the central exoticism of the “Suite,” an exoticism supporting Borla’s almost mystical vocalise.
Nine individual pieces fill out the album. The first of these, “Slap Happy,” makes it clear that the trio working with more traditional instrumentation has moved on to something completely different in mood and tone. “Slap Happy” swings.
“March to Castile” is true to its title, while “Beam Me Up” is appropriately spacey with Borla’s whispers and Robinson on the photo-theremin. “Circe’s Lament” is a plaintive ballad.
Perhaps a case can be made for the unity of the nine tracks, but in reality it is not necessary. They stand individually, each echoing the brilliant interplay of the members of the trio as they demonstrate what seems to be a gentler side of free jazz.