Jazz Album of the Week: Crafted in Philly, U.S.E. Trio’s ‘Twilight’ is Avant-Garde Yet Accessible
There is a space of time between sunset and the finality of night’s darkness where the diffusion of sunlight through the atmosphere and its dust serves as a stubborn and beautiful last gasp of day. It’s called twilight.
Not coincidentally, Twilight’s the name of the fourth and latest release from the U.S.E Trio, a Philly-based group of musicians whose work is understated yet explosive and viscerally illuminating yet intellectually abstract, not unlike the concept of twilight itself.
The guys lean into the metaphor in describing the album and the combination of the largely improvised synthesis of rhythm, melody, and harmony the listener should expect to find therein. “The music of Twilight is neither completely light nor completely dark,” reads the album’s liners, “but the projection of a new dawn.” As a listener, all you can do is take a listen, shrug your shoulders and say to yourself, “Yeah, I guess that sounds about right.”
Andrew Urbina plays saxophone, Matt Scarano plays drums, and Sandy Eldred, the trio’s leader, plays bass. Urbina, Scarano, Eldred—otherwise known as U.S.E. These aren’t the type of guys who need a clever or nonsensical name to say anything on behalf of their music. The music affords them all the creative street cred they need. And they’ve used that street cred to host the Creative Concepts in Jazz Series, a monthly concert series held, since March 2019, in a charmingly retrofitted old industrial building in Kensington built before the Civil War. It’s there, amidst spotlighting “different stylistic approaches to jazz,” as the series’ credo states, that U.S.E. workshopped and refined the set of new compositions and arrangements that eventually became Twilight, an album that proves improvisation and intentionality are not mutually exclusive concepts.
The opener, Urbina’s “Tonal Gravity” is avant-garde-adjacent, accessible and pegged to musical signposts yet a window into a mind given to labyrinthine machinations. The force of Eldred’s steadiness allows Urbina to freelance, but he never goes so far off-piste that he leaves Eldred—or himself— on a lonely island.
Urbina, at least on Twilight, is the trio’s most prolific composer, responsible for three of the album’s six tunes and collaborating with his bandmates on a fourth, “The Black Sea,” the album’s atmospheric closer.
The nearly 16-minute title track is Urbina’s magnum opus. In the manner of a balletic suite, its movements track expressionistically with the sun’s daily disappearance from perceptibility and the twilight’s last persistent gleaming; they elicit a familiar spectrum of complex, often conflicting emotions: from the euphoric relief of a reprieve from the day’s responsibilities to the panicked feeling of “pencils down” being called on the day while you’ve got a test’s worth of questions left to answer. There’s a lot to digest here, and not all of it’s designed to make you feel good. But it will make you feel something. To learn more about the anarchist’s playground of your subconscious, play this one as you drift to sleep and see all the things you’ve been avoiding thinking about.
Compare and contrast with Urbina’s “June,” perhaps the album’s most lyrical offering, which brings to mind the version of Coltrane’s “Naima” that, before being issued on CD for the first time on Blue World (2019), could only be found on the soundtrack to Quebecois New Wave cult classic Le Chat dans le Sac. The heirs to French art-house cinema should get in touch with these guys.
But that type of thing has never been for everyone: too artsy, too intellectual. The tune here with the most universal appeal is Scarano’s “Hooray!” A euphoric stimulant, this one lights up the brain’s reward pathways the way Tommy Walker lights up pinball machines. Now imagine Quentin Tarantino filming a new adaptation of The Who’s rock opera and you’re on track to understanding the kind of upper this one is.
Naturally, it’s the brainchild of a drummer, and Scarano is captivating here, showing he’s got the technique to play anywhere, with anyone. Interestingly, Scarano’s played with Dave Brubeck’s son, Chris, and as I listen to Urbina run through the main theme here, I can only think that he sounds decidedly… Desmondian. And yet, he shows so much more as he burrows deeper into the tune. While much of this album deserves airplay, most of it is probably destined for the wee hours, when, let’s face it, things get weird. But this tune—this one’s earned a hearing in primetime.