Mark Helias' Open Loose
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Mark Helias' Open Loose


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The best kept secret in music


"CD Onlline"

Concert Review
Jazz Composers Collective Concert Series: Mark Helias’s Open Loose New School Jazz Performance Space
New York City September 2000
There are few jazz ensembles more aptly named than Mark Helias’s Open Loose. The master bassist kicked off a new Jazz Composers Collective concert series with the help of Tony Malaby on tenor sax and Tom Rainey on drums. Dissolving all traditional jazz-trio boundaries, each player helped bring about a combustible stew of sound in which any instrument could take the lead, or recede into the background, at any time. Rainey’s gangly, physical attack was as riveting as ever. Often staring straight ahead as if to visualize the infinite possibilities arrayed before him, the drummer grabbed alternately for the sticks, brushes, and other implements that best expressed the moment. Malaby played complex, ardent solos and effortlessly launched into unpredictable unison passages on cue. Helias piloted the group with an authority, wisdom, and selflessness that brought Dave Holland to mind. His pizzicato and arco playing were equally strong, and his rigorous compositions ("Startle," "Dominoes," "Mapa," "Gentle Ben," and "Pick and Roll") walked a tightrope between stirring cacophony and wily precision.
- David R. Adler

"Downbeat 3/99 ****"

March 1999
Mark Helias, Open Loose: Come Ahead Back

Conceptual vigor and joie de vivre blend felicitously in Mark Helias’ music, qualities communicated to the max on Come Ahead Back... . Trio mates Ellery Eskelin on tenor sax and Tom Rainey on drums are individualists adept at thinking on their feet in sync, able to switch roles at a moment’s notice, equally comfortable in the open field or working within a lane.
Helias presents a balanced six-course menu, opening with “Semaphore,” a loose high-velocity aperitif that gets the juices flowing. That segues to the lively blues-with-a-twist “Line Nine,” morphs into open-form rubato with “The Other Brother,” hurtles into free-bop with “Boppo,” decrescendos into nuanced three-way improv on “Case Sensitive,” and concludes on a deep groove with the African-inflected vamp-to-free “Last One In, First One Out.” Helias imprints his personality on the flow with light touch; secure in his virtuosity, he’s the music’s faithful liege.

- Ted Pankin

"“On Air” WKCR Radio Guide"

Mark Helias’ Open Loose
Come Ahead Back
Open Loose is one of New York’s best live jazz groups. This trio led by Mark Helias (b) also contains Ellery Eskelin (ts) and Tom Rainey (d). I can’t say enough great things about this group, both as individuals and collectively. Mark Helias is a truly great bass player who has the capacity to use the instrument in many different ways, exploring all of its possibilities. Equally comfortable with the index finger and bow, he doesn’t leave intonation behind when extracting noisy feats or harmonics from the strings. Ellery Eskelin is the strongest of today’s horn players. Sticking exclusively to tenor saxophone, his sound is strong and vibrant. The notes he picks are beautiful and exciting, drawing the listener in with his unique combination of introversion and extroversion. Tom Rainey often threatens to steal the show, no matter with whom he plays. He is visually exciting, flailing his arms about spastically to whop everything in sight, including music stands and walls. Yet despite his “
wild” physicality, there is a pervasive precision in everything that he does.
Collectively and individually, these three are some of the best listeners in the business. A lot of the trio’s synergy comes from their ability to perform astoundingly well on their own instruments while constantly responding to and supporting each other.
One of the great things about an Open Loose performance is that an audience member is never sure when compositions end and begin, and what was written beforehand and what was composed right on stage. Unfortunately, that feature of Open Loose is lost on “Come Ahead Back,” and it is clearly demarked both musically and visually in the booklet as to what was “written” and what was “improvised”, with separate tracks for each.
Though there are some hits here, including Helias’ “Boppo” and the improvised “Case Sensitive”, The trio wounds like it’s on an off night. The sterile ambiance of a studio setting may account for some of this. However, some of what is lacking in this CD may also be in the recording itself. Though the recording quality of the CD sounds fine on the surface, the microphones managed not to catch the full force of the trio. Ellery’s powerful sound is muffled. Mark’s beautiful bass sounds not as inimitable as it does in real life. And Tom Sounds restrained an distant.
If I hadn’t seen this trio live so many times, I might not be so critical of this disc. It’ s still good music. For those who may not get a chance to see the trio or who are waiting to do so, it’s a good introduction. And it allowed Helias to record some of his compositions -- I’ve been waiting for a recorded version of “Last One In, First One Out” for a while; it’s one of the trios anthems.
So, as I await another studio record of Jacky Terrasson(see above), I await a live record from Open Loose.

- Ken Thomson

"Mark Helias and Open Loose"

Mark Helias and Open Loose
Atomic Clock
(Radio Legs Music)
by Will Layman

First things first: this relatively obscure disc is one of the best jazz recordings of 2006.

Mark Helias is one of the finest acoustic bass players in the contemporary jazz avant-garde, a guy who can play inside as well as out and who stretches the boundaries in both directions. In fact, calling him an “out” cat is too limiting and mildly inaccurate, as his groups tend to play a structured form of modern jazz that sits hard in the sweet spot of jazz tradition. It’s just that Helias also loves to exploit the possibilities of freedom in his bands as well. Best of both worlds—melodic, harmonized and swinging, yet wide open too.

Helias’s trio is called “Open Loose”—presently consisting of the leader on bass violin, Tony Malaby on tenor sax, and Tom Rainey on drums—and that’s not a bad name. You could probably add “tight” in there as well, as the band plays with the kind of togetherness that only a working band can manage. There are only three of them, sure, and no chording instrument to hem things in too tight, but overall sound is one of casual discipline. On “Momentum Interrupted” the melody and bassline play in easy counterpoint until they lock into a perfect unison, for example, with Rainey on them like a mouse following peanut butter. Or there’s “What Up” where the swing starts and stops on a microdot and you feel that the trio probably can finish each other’s sentences.

But then this record is called Atomic Clock, so precision should not be a problem. What about the freedom thing? They have that covered too. Malaby is not a classic downtown wailer—he avoids the broad vibrato and emotive plainness of Coltrane or Ayler—but he goes outside the chords and the conservatory with wit and mastery. On “Chavez”, for example, he overblows with remarkable control to get two tones at once, letting his intonation float free in carefully chosen spots. The opener, “Subway”, gets more classically “free”, with the tenor blurting and foghorning at will—air scratching through the mouthpiece, squeaks repeating like machine-gun fire, cleanly articulated passages tracing chord clusters rather than the usual neat patterns.

Rainey is one drummer you want if controlled freedom is your goal. Finding a clever middle ground between groove and coloration, Rainey never powers the group like a rock drummer. He sounds more like a multi-limbed percussion section that plays with uncanny togetherness, arraying cymbals and toms into a dialogue with bandmates. Most often Rainey is supreme when only Helias is soloing. The two rhythm players could easily make a duet record, as their portions of the disc fascinate.

It’s fair criticism to note that saxophone trio records can get tedious—with not enough harmonic color (from a guitar or piano) to shade the tracks into contrast. Perhaps that’s why Helias presents one quartet track in the middle of things: “Modern Scag” with Elery Eskelin making an appearance as a second tenor player. This is supreme news, with Eskelin playing late night counterpoint on the ensemble section, shadowing Malaby with relaxed suspense. It is difficult to tell when the musicians begin to improvise, as the slow and deliberate composition seems to slowly segue in and out of opportunities for freedom. There are no traditional “solos”, yet little that you’ll hear this year will sound more like “jazz”.

It seems odd to recommend this record as one of the finest of the year, as it appeared so unimposingly. It was released only by Helias’s own record label, and you can’t seem to order if from or the other usual outlets. It will resist enjoyment if you merely put it on in the other room while you cook dinner or as background while you chat with a friend. It requires an active listening session—the kind of time too few of us have to spend any more. But its riches are undeniable. “Atomic Clock” is revealed as a collaged exercise in acoustic hip-hop, for example, and “Plantini” is plainly a kaleidoscope of patterns and rhythms that shifts continually and beautifully. “Zephyr” is a ballad that seems equal parts Ellington and Ornette Coleman—a combination that hardly anyone would even bother with.

But Open Loose is no ordinary band, and Atomic Clock is no ordinary jazz record. I’m strenuously enthusiastic about it, as will be all serious jazz fans. Almost “classical” in its organization and technique, this sequence of improvisations on tantalizing themes is a 2006 highlight that more people need to hear. Freedom with design, it sounds like the very definition of jazz—the very definition of America at its best.

RATING: 9 out of 10
— 11 December 2006

PopMatters Picks: The Best Music of 2006
Best Jazz of 2006
[11 December 2006]
Will Layman's list of the year's best jazz records, a hearty baker's dozen, includes iconoclasts, eccentrics, avant-gardists, and some downright swingers.
by Will Layman

Jazz trios without chording instruments—here just Tony Malaby’s tenor, Mark Helias’s acoustic bass, and Tom Rainey’s drums—risk being monotonous. The solution has often been the inclusion of one titanic soloist such as Sonny Rollins. Here, the answer lies in great writing—with intricate parts for all three musicians that never sound fussy—and magical interplay. Malaby is better than you’ve ever heard him before—sly, rowdy, quicksilver, depending on the tune’s mood or the moment. Helias and Rainey—old partners who’ve conceived of 300 ways to swing and as many ways to play creatively free—are engaged in the kind of conversation that only takes place at 3:00AM between best friends. It’s not dull. It’s not exactly avant-garde yet it’s definitely not mainstream. A great place to be.

CD Reviews from the July/August 2006 issue
- Pop Matters


Verbs of Will (2003) Radio Legs Music RL001
New School (2001) Enja Enja 9413
Come Ahead Back (1998) Koch KOC-CD-7861


Feeling a bit camera shy


The trio's name "Open Loose" refers not only to its musical style, but to Mark Helias' compositions which are written with plenty of space in them, and are designed to be interpreted openly and loosely. They allow for seamless transitions between composed passages and improvisation, never easy to achieve.
This threesome fully exploits the creative possibilities of the compositions, never opting for a clichéd theme-solos-theme format. The group has the knack of starting with a rather loose - sometimes even ramshackle - piece and slowly allowing it to evolve until it emerges as a tight theme.
Open Loose has been touring for six years and has released three CDs.