Zane Carney Quartet ‘Alter Ego’ CD (Orenda) 5/5

Zane Carney is a jazz musician, composer, and Grammy-nominated guitarist, currently residing in Los Angeles. His new quartet record, “Alter Ego” is a devilish foray into the world of jazz/rock/improv, with an open attitude that allows the quartet the freedom required to let the musical sparks fly. Carney’s discography includes playing on Thundercat’s “Drunk” and serving as John Daversa’s guitarist with appearances on his Big Band and Small Band albums including “Kaleidoscope Eyes,” “Junk Wagon,” “Artful Joy,” and “Wobbly Dance Flower” featuring Bob Mintzer. Over the years, he has performed with Kamasi Washington, Ronald Bruner Jr., Brandon Coleman, Cameron Graves, Nir Felder, and Sam Gendel, among others. Most recently, he developed a film scoring partnership with Grammy-nominated pianist Tommy King, releasing a duo record titled “Film.”

Featuring Jerry Watts Jr. on bass, Gene Coye on drums, and Katisse Buckingham on woodwinds, the quartet embodies an adventurous new wave of free improvisation, with high-octane jazz-rock overtones, generally top-heavy on the rock end of the spectrum. But it’s certainly not that clear-cut… there are many different influences coming through in Carney’s music, and with the album featuring a series of improvised compositions, experiments and sketches, it all makes for a varied and vibrant album. I also particularly like the fact that the recording consists mostly of first takes with no editing. All tracks were mixed from the drummer’s perspective, placing the listener in the middle of a live session, and it really does sound like you’re sitting on stage at the centre of the action.

“I wanted this record to feel alive,” says Carney. “This is the first time my actual improvisational spirit is being expressed in recorded format. I wanted to capture the sparks that fly when Jerry, Gene, Katisse and I improvise together, and document the untamed, almost manic spirit that LA’s late-night jazz scene has produced: there is a certain energy and freedom that transcends genre. West Coast jazz is genreless, it’s reckless, it’s audacious, and it pushes boundaries. In order to summon that ferocity, we approached this session as one might approach an unmoderated debate: no judgement or rules, freely exploring new lands harmonically, whenever a member felt like leading the charge.”

“Alter Ego” shape-shifts from track to track. Imagine an amalgamation of Frank Zappa, Led Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, randomly dipped into a witches cauldron consisting of Derek Bailey, Allan Holdsworth and Miles Davis… BOOM!

The album opens with “Brain Freeze,” drawing listeners in with a meditative, haunting melody before bursting into an explosion of textures, patterns and colours, then promptly clearing the canvas for a flute/guitar battle. This sets the stage for a stream of multilayered experiments, provocative inquiries, jarring juxtapositions and explosive playing all around. “Alter” begins with its heavy Jimmy Page-esque riff, with Carney letting loose with some astonishing fret work. The much jazzier “Oleo” features some great interplay between guitar and sax. With the drums and bass driving the tune, it’s wonderful to hear such a creative, intuitive interplay between Carney and Buckingham. “Lost” has more of a Nirvana feel to it from the outset. Carney’s grungy guitar chords remind me of XTC at their best, there’s no mundane playing going on here, the choice of guitar sounds and rhythmic electricity are clear for all to hear. Not only that, but it’s so refreshing and exciting to hear a guitarist genuinely forging his own sound and identity. The multi-layered “Pitchfork” is a brilliantly crafted piece. Mouth-watering ingenuity from a quartet who obviously revel in the opportunity to make music together. There’s a change of feel on the loose, cool, jazzy vibe of “Minority”, and the short but very sweet solo guitar of “Things You Aren’t”. The deep, dark, bluesy “Found” just oozes originality and attitude. The sax dances with the guitar as the drums and bass help fuel an increasingly ferocious fire. By the time the closing piece “Ego” blasts out from my now turned-up-high speakers, I can hear my neighbours banging on my walls pleading with me to turn it down… and as I turn it up one notch more I sit back and smile, blown away by the sheer brilliance of Zane Carney’s quartet.

Mike Gates