Of all the possible universes where improvised music can go, the Ochion Jewell Quartet chose to explore one of the most interesting ones last night at Cornelia Street Cafe. The opening set of their album release party for their new release, Volk, was the reverse image of your typical cutting contest, everyone trying to say as much as possible in the fewest possible notes, a challenge to see who could play the quietest. The four – tenor saxophonist Jewell, pianist Amino Belyamani, bassist Sam Minaie and drummer Qasim Naqvi – displayed the camaraderie that comes from years of close collaboration (in this case, in a much more frenetic unit, the Bedstuy Ewe Ensemble). Mirroring each other and framing each others’ time in the spotlight – a sepulchral, ultraviolet one, such that the music was – their commitment to the subtle architecture and unselfconscious gravitas of Jewell’s slowly unwinding, blues- and North African-infused melodicism was singleminded. And beyond the chatty staff at the bar, the crowd locked in on the alchemy being created onstage.
Jewell rose from a predawn smokiness to a squawk or a squall a grand total of three times in maybe fifty minutes onstage, and the first lasted just a millisecond. Otherwise, he he held to a rustic, carefully considered approach, even when spiraling through one of the many looping Andalucian or Berber-inspired phrases that brought to mind an especially tuneful take on Steve Reich just as much as they echoed rai or gnawa themes. Only on occasion were the four all playing at once, both Jewell and Belyamani letting the bass and drums – who in places on the new album are so sepulchral that they’re almost invisible – take centerstage. What a treat it was to hear Miniae go to the bottom of his sonic well for the pitchblende bowing that opened the set – and what a thrill it was to watch him interpolate high harmonics into those deep-riverbed washes so seamlessly as to become a one-man string section. Likewise, Naqvi went for extended technique only when it really counted: his flickering use of his hardware, muted hand-drumming and a single bowed cymbal riff brought to life a phantasm rather than a poltergeist.
Belyamani – whose allusively chilling, judiciously resonant phrasing is one of the album’s most powerful assets – was especially chill here, holding much of that in reserve as he painted lowlit lustre and aurora borealis glimmer with minute variations on open fifths and minimalistically ornamented Middle Eastern phrases. They picked up the pace midway through with a mashup of the blues and gnawa, Jewell’s aching red-clay lines low and somber beneath Minae’s artfully plucked, bouncy riffs, articulated with the lively pop of a Moroccan bendir lute. They finally went around the horn with a fleeting, somber reinvention of Ennio Morricone’s Navajo Joe – “You’re never heard it like this before,” Jewell grinned – but they did that with the song’s head, nobody getting more than a bar at a time, a rapt, wounded one at that. Sometimes less is more than most people can possibly imagine.