I’ve sung Nik Francis’s praises on this site before, but it’s not something that can be overstated. Francis, the DC-based percussionist and composer, has quietly dropped a catalog of crucial exploratory, freeform music on his Topology label, working with everyone from Thollem McDonas, Tyler Higgins, Jamal Moore, and so many others. For Our Names, Francis is joined by Luke Stewart on bass, Crowmeat Bob Pence on woodwinds, and Charles Rahmat Woods on flute and woodwind. Recorded live in September 2020 in celebration of the MLK library reopening in DC, Our Names is a 50-minute upward flight. Split into two pieces for this release, we blast off.
Our Names opens with fanciful flights and near misses between Crowmeat Bob and Woods on “Thoughts made sound,” the latter flickering like a maniac lightning bug ready to blow. Stewart frantically bows out lightspeed passages before pulling back to grind out blocks reminiscent of his works for double bass and amplifier. All the while, Francis is lurking, offering some minimal tick-tack before the quartet begins to coalesce around his fragmented rhythms. Embers grow into a fire as Pence and Woods lay down run after run, continually upping the ante, while Francis keeps the band driving ahead. Before things burn out of control, the band pulls back and Stewart takes off on a twisting, hypnotic quest.
Dynamics are constantly shifting in on Our Names, with each musician getting in the spotlight before handing off and doing it all over again. All the while, Francis keeps the compass arrow pointing north. “Thoughts made sound” settles into a quiet, spacious drone. Francis builds structure and tension on gong with Stewart building concrete walls on bass. Pence and Woods fill in the gaps, but this middle section is mesmerizing and elegant.
When the hammer drops again, the fire roars into a blast furnace, and the horns screech, delirious and brainsick like lobotomized mice in a two-story maze. The rhythm section is as solid as a rock, but Pence and Woods just wail and wail and it is glorious. Francis and Stewart steer the band toward space as a sonic plume explodes into zero gravity, weightless and alive.
“Ever the anarchist” is a groove-filled boiler. Moving side-to-side like a rattlesnake slithering through the cool sand of the nighttime desert, the quartet explores the quiet spaces between the trenches. There’s a contemplative edge to the first half before the higher gears kick in. Francis and Stewart have such a keen understanding and their playing has this interconnected, intense stricture that is overpowering. Eventually “Ever the anarchist” evolves into the two of them playing off each other, wielding a massive array of sonic textures as exultations. It may not be the loudest moment of Our Names, but it’s the perfect exclamation point for an enthralling set of incinerating jazz.