AMN Reviews: Sam Decker – Shrove (2020; Sunnyside)

Sam Decker’s Shrove harkens back to a time a few decades ago during which jazz performers were exploring the boundaries between tunefulness and free improvisation, often flitting between both. In 2020, it is more widely accepted for improvisation to be free, even of any repetition or discernable themes. Decker eschews this notion in making an album that is both adventurous and listenable. Notably, he leaves the harmonic structure open for complexity but does not demand it.

Like many musicians leaving the conservatory in recent years, Decker’s writing and playing are informed by more than just jazz – classical and even mainstream stylings poke their heads into his output. A saxophonist, Decker specifically wanted to include clarinet in his arrangements after hearing its impact on the works of Shostakovich. Eventually, he found Michael Sachs to fill this role and then completed his ensemble with pianist Dov Manski, bassist Aryeh Kobrinsky, and drummer Nathan Ellman-Bell.

Filles kicks off the album with a hummable tune featuring dual sax and clarinet over a busy rhythm section. An initially frenetic beginning slowly evolves into a more introspective and deliberately-paced structure toward the end. Decker’s writing makes generous use of space and atmospherics, as exhibited in the sparse instrumentation on Stems, with plaintive woodwinds complimenting loosely-oriented bass and piano lines.

None of this quite settles into a groove despite some melodies being distinctly playful. Case in point, ST has a bouncing rhythm and memorable sax leads that become closer to a blowout before the track returns to its original themes. Similarly, Falling Action begins with a three-part melody before morphing into an aggressive and outside sax / drum exposition. What it Was All For has a staggered rhythm from Ellman-Bell and Manski over which Kobrinsky offers short solos and motifs while Decker and Sachs provide tense droning chords.

Shrove is a compelling set of pieces that transition between undaunted improvisation and chamber jazz with rawness and energy. There is plenty to enjoy here, no matter where you fall on the creative music spectrum.