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Subtle Degrees

  • Arts + Literature Laboratory 2021 Winnebago Street Madison, WI, 53704 United States (map)

Drummer Gerald Cleaver and saxophonist Travis Laplante form this ambitious new jazz duo. Info/tix

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Although it cites inspirations ranging from metal to contemporary classical music, the deliberately spartan New York duo Subtle Degrees is squarely within the field of contemporary jazz. But there's nothing wrong with that, really—Gerald Cleaver and tenor saxophonist Travis Laplante can make deeply arresting music. The pair's new album, A Dance That Empties, comprises one three-movement, album-length composition.

Cleaver's performance on the record is particularly fine, exploring a variety of percussive colors while improvising on top of an evolving and tightly controlled pulse (his tempo shifts are so natural that they're almost imperceptible), and Laplante can play with real emotional heat and unconventional effects. The sinuous, incessant and deeply aggressive tenor improvisations that continue throughout "A Dance That Empties II" are among the album's high points, and there's obvious, exciting musical communication and connection happening between the two musicians on the second and third movements of the piece. For example, "A Dance That Empties III" really takes off with a beautiful moment of interplay starting just after the 10-minute mark, about halfway through. Endlessly repeating volleys of notes and smartly varied cymbal playing build into a fried, trilling climax, and then burn out into what sounds like a successful attempt to make a tenor saxophone imitate brutally droning amp feedback.

But this is why it's disappointing that the only really interesting moments in the first movement come from Laplante's ghostly, introductory overtones and Cleaver's unaccompanied drumming at the end. It's understandable that the musicians wanted to save themselves a little before the obsessive endurance contests of the second and third parts, but the music here just isn't anywhere near as compelling as what's to come. Still, what follows is often riveting, and Subtle Degrees is at their best when Laplante and Cleaver manage, intentionally or not, to subvert the project's name. —Mike Noto

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