Tragic Assembly: Instability |  ★★★★

[Soul City Sounds; March 18]

Free jazz is often pigeonholed as a decidedly unsubtle art form, too often stereotyped as a bunch of people peeling the paint off the walls with the expressive force of their unrelenting, full-volume squalls.

And yes, there is plenty of that kind of free jazz, and it can be positively thrilling.

But more thrilling, I would posit, is the more understated flavor of free jazz, the kind that foregrounds melody and texture and the full range of instrumental timbres. Tragic Assembly makes that kind of free jazz on its debut album, Instability.

The trio consists of three Triangle improv veterans: reed player Crowmeat Bob Pence, bassist Phil Venable (The Paul Swest), and Charles Chace (The Paul Swest, Speed Stick) who, for this band iteration, trades in his usual guitar for drums. Album opener “Best Static” proves to be a kind of mission statement in the creative potential of restraint. Even though all three play lots of notes and fill up the sonic space, there is transparency and clarity to the collective results.

Anchored by Chace’s skittering, meterless beats, Venable and Pence overlay different kinds of melodies, rarely overlapping but always flowing in complementary swirls. Even when Pence abandons pitches in favor of pops and splatters, the group still maintains the sangfroid of those early Ornette Coleman albums.

On “A Person Followed,” Pence switches over to bass clarinet and luxuriates in long lines. The song reaches a subtly frenetic peak when Venable picks up his bow to complicate the texture even further. The album gradually builds up steam, closing with some near freakouts in “Stilted Transmission” and “That Vacation Friend,” but even those feel somehow reserved (especially compared to what all three are capable of).

If I had one quibble, it would be that the album is mastered a little low; I had to turn the volume up a bit higher than normal to fully experience its soundworld. But that certainly doesn’t diminish the range of engrossing sounds this group unleashes.

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