Free jazz can be a tricky beast. Any genre that intentionally forsakes all conventions or coherent structure is ripe for abuse. Bottom feeders can use it as an excuse to justify sloppy, cluttered compositions; any poor performances can be chalked up to “experimentation” and “pushing the envelope.” Freedom with no direction is anarchy, but in the hands of talented individuals, freedom can be used for a greater purpose. At its best, free jazz tells a story. With Luminescence, Daniel Carter and Reuben Radding prove themselves to be two fine authors.
Radding’s steady performances on double bass provide solid story lines for the pieces, which travel from soothing to eerie and everywhere in between. His work lends a degree of structure to the album, setting up rhythms and punctuating the songs with Steinbeckian precision. Carter has performed with many of the heavyweights of free jazz: Sun Ra, William Parker and Matthew Shipp, to name a few. He represents his pedigree well on Luminescence, as his emotive saxophone imparts style and mood to the songs.
The haunting “You and I Are Disappearing” sounds like a film noir soundtrack condensed into five minutes. From the sinister intro to the stabbing chords of the climax and on through the plaintive denouement, the adaptation of a Raymond Chandler novel unfurls in one piece. Bernard Hermann needed an entire orchestra to create the same atmosphere that Carter and Radding create with just two instruments. “Qualcosa Verso Azzurro” and “Ancestral Voyage-Mystery Succeed” break periodically from their rambling narratives and almost settle into classical jazz pieces — but not quite. Regardless, their sunny rhythms provide the perfect soundtrack to a warm, alcohol-drenched summer morning.
A fine line exists between good experimentation and bad experimentation, and virtually all free jazz encounters this boundary at one point or another. When Carter and Radding play with disregard for the other, it can sound spontaneous, unorthodox and wonderful — or it can sound like disorganized crap. For instance, the intro to “Occurrences, Places, Entities and The Sea” may sound like a swarm of wasps attacking a kennel full of poodles, but at least Carter and Radding are both rattling the hives. On the other hand, portions of “Refracted Light and Grace” and “Blessing the Ride” are akin to taking the odd-numbered pages from The Sun Also Rises, the even-numbered pages from To Have and Have Not, stapling it all together and calling it a Hemingway novel.
These moments are thankfully brief, however, as these two are of one mind for the majority of this album. Their performances complement each other in mood, if not pace, for the duration of Luminescence. In the waning moments of the album, as Radding’s mournful bass gives way to the long, slow notes of Carter’s sax, it’s apparent that they’ve generally been on the same page.