AMN Reviews: Sana Nagano – Smashing Humans (2021; 577 Records)

I really needed this. After an unprecedented year of limited physical movement and anxiety, it is more than refreshing to hear violinist Sana Nagano embrace chaos, noise, and energy. Even better, she does so with 60 minutes of intellectually-challenging and complex avant rock that incorporates more than a bit of joy. What could be better?

Joined by Peter Apfelbaum on sax, Keisuke Matsuno on guitar, Ken Filiano on bass, and Joe Hertenstein on drums, Nagano leads her quintet through eight labyrinthine tracks. Nagano, Apfelbaum, and Matsuno, in particular, make a compelling grouping with the former two trading leads and Matsuno providing heavy and loud guitar. The pieces are mostly composed and often contrapuntal with multiple simultaneous melodies, but with enough room for exploratory solos. The rhythms worked up by Filiano and Hertenstein are both driving and intricate.

Case in point, Humans in Grey echoes the circular patterns and complex structures of early Anthony Braxton as applied to modern avant rock similar to what one might hear on the Cuneiform or Recommended labels. Indeed, it is hard to think of Smashing Humans as jazz – despite the incorporation of sax – because of its tight compositions. Humans in Grey also features an open-ended interlude that seems largely improvised, but Nagano ultimately bends this passage to her will and the track returns to its Braxton-esque stylings.

Smashing Humans is a powerful and welcome release. Whether going all out of playing in a more restrained fashion, Nagano and crew skillfully navigate a set of pieces that work on multiple levels. Bravo, and an early album-of-the-year candidate.