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Born in Tokyo and based in Brooklyn, violinist Sana Nagano casts a wide net with her improvisational quintet on Smashing Humans. With one foot in the gypsy jazz of Stephane Grapelli and another in the spontaneous intensity of Albert Ayler or latter-day John Coltrane, Nagano – a veteran of vibist Karl Berger’s avant ensembles – is as comfortable with straight post bop as with free jazz, and seems to be happiest when she blends the two. “Loud Dinner Wanted” keeps a steady grip on its melody, even as the players (saxophonist Peter Apfelbaum, guitarist Keisuke Matsuno, bassist Ken Filiano, drummer Joe Hertenstein) try to wrest it out of her hands. She shows them, though, with fiery soloing that wipes the floor with everybody.
That’s a genuine challenge with Matsuno around, as he delights in distorted riffage that indicates as much love for the noisier end of postpunk as for avant-garde jazz. The pound of “Humans in Grey” and the tricky rhythm of “Chance Music” show a comfort with rock dynamics, while “The Other Humans” throws elements of gothic psychedelia into its free jazz core. “Dark Waw” abandons any pretense of accessibility for a (nearly) freeform cacophony, though it stops well short of pure noise. Proving herself as effective as a bandleader as a musician and composer, Nagano maintains order throughout, focusing her bandmates’ improvisations toward a common goal. Wrapped in a delightfully oddball 8-bit cover from Dr!p, Smashing Humans is both impressive and entertaining.
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