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In avant-garde jazz, it’s not uncommon for the listener to lose the drums. They don’t play notes or a beat, per se, and the collision of the other instruments tends to usurp the attention. Moreso when the other instruments are Matthew Shipp’s clanging, resonant piano and William Parker’s probing, kinetic bass, as they are on Near Disaster. In fact, drummer Jeff Cosgrove is the album’s most restless and dynamic musician—the freest—and often in command.

Indeed, Shipp and Parker are very much concerned with careful designs. They’re veterans of the late David S. Ware’s celebrated quartet, whose one clear regulation was painstaking development of the themes it spontaneously crafted. Here, on the 35-minute centerpiece “October Nights Sky,” Shipp and Parker seem at first to be casting about, assembling tentative ideas and lobbing them between each other in search of purchase. It doesn’t last long: 30 seconds in, Shipp is deep into a construction, Parker orbiting around him on bowed bass until the 1:40 mark, when he finds a counterpoint to work with.

It’s then that Cosgrove comes in, having only emitted a few percussive asides in that early going. His arrival brings the piece its dimension: As Parker and Shipp recycle, extend, and vary their harmonic and rhythmic motifs, then go off in search of others, it’s the drums that form the truly irregular shapes. His tink-tish ride cymbal prods, skips, flirts with the standby triplet “swing” figure. It’s such a distinctive, insistent sound that it fools the ear into thinking it’s more regular than it actually is. 

But it’s not chaos, either. Cosgrove is keeping abreast of Parker and Shipp’s changes in direction, turning their subtler modifications into major shifts just by adjusting the syncopation. And when they explode, it is he who determines the blast radius. About 15 minutes in, as a riled-up ensemble tsunami hits, Cosgrove suddenly pulls away from his snare-drum onslaught; he still tosses in some licks and presses for accent, but his attenuation dissipates the tidal wave, and when Shipp and Parker head in for another one the drummer first joins, then changes to a frantic ride-cymbal gallop with the other two following.

The other two tracks, the opening “Last Steps, First” and closing “Spherical,” find Parker and (especially) Shipp more consistently motif-driven than “October Nights Sky.” As “Last Steps” begins, the pianist carves out a chord-heavy stomp that he continues to mutate throughout the piece, with Shipp often bounding alongside him; no matter how long they stretch out, though, Cosgrave rarely stays in place. “Spherical” is a playfully rhythmic piece (perhaps a nod to Thelonious Monk, whose middle name was Sphere), but it’s Parker and Shipp who keep it bouncing along as the drums rifle through a swing groove, displace that groove, then pulverize it, sometimes fading out entirely (leading the piano and bass, at one point, in what sounds like a manic episode) before crashing back in. Thus Near Disaster hammers home a point that, like the drums, is often lost in free music: “Form” is relative.