The question of restraint is a recurring one in the case of jazz improvisation. With too little restraint, a directionless instrumental free-for-all assaults the ears. A by-the-books, predictable approach is barely jazz at all, let alone improvisation. The intuitive answer, then, is both extremes in moderation—but as experimental group Fugu proves, the answer is perhaps not so simple.
Though a quaint five piece collaboration, Fugu oozed the loaded energy of an octet, their sound further enhanced by the Cornelia Street Café’s narrow, intimate construction (Aug. 4). Drummer Nasheet Waits channeled an unwavering passionate ferocity into multiple rhythm layers, backed by the ominous but vivacious hum of Thomas Morgan on bass. Between their beat-driven intensity and Ralph Alessi’s shrill trumpet, pianist Jacob Sacks’s lower volume melodies often got lost in the overwhelming wash—save for stellar, delicately sparse accompaniment during Morgan’s bass solo. Amid the evening’s nonstop percussion-trumpet powerhouse, Michaël Attias assumed the role of reflective sage. The alto saxist took on his signature meditativeness, cradling his saxophone while visibly absorbing the group’s vibe, coming alive at precise, intermittent moments. And when he came alive, Fugu’s already tipping scales nearly toppled into auditory overload.
Attias left very little of his instrument’s range unheard, weaving through breathy woodenness to succinct metallic density, with the occasional jump into blaring aggression—at times all within the same tune. Whether in somberly-tinged unison with Alessi or the brass cherry atop Fugu’s complex instrumental dynamics, Attias throttled forward with thunderous command. Coupled with the exhaustless virtuosic reserves of his collaborators—morphing from sultry-smooth tandem into cymbal-rippled Latin influence into outright, roaring fire— the atmosphere reached an overbearing intensity. But the group’s folly on the side of balance lent itself strangely to a divine hypnotic quality. Every tune dripped with soulful passion, both in the band’s hearty, robust music and excited nod-nods and jigs. Though over-the-top, Fugu’s sound retained an inherent musical cohesion and intuitive rhythmic progression. The quintet’s ultimate virtue, however, was their sheer emotional immersion in their craft.
Akin to fine caviar, Fugu beckons with its delectable, blunt pungency—but is best enjoyed one small dab at a time. The quintet’s experimental, instinctually-driven approach stretches jazz with a charged touch— though never straying into discord or off-putting disconnectedness. And while not always straightforward or attractive in aural appeal, Fugu’s sound speaks the deeply satiating, refreshing language of transformative catharsis.