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SML – Small Medium Large
International Anthem

Among the more fascinating strains of early fusion’s legacy is its role as a forebear of contemporary electronic music. It might seem a stretch to peg the spiraling modal treks of electric Miles as ground zero for what transpired in Berlin and Detroit, but it’s all there if you listen for it: the pulse, the liberation, the hypnotic wall of sound that can either be absorbed in toto or in detail, where interlocking parts dazzle and seemingly minute shifts in melody or rhythm are revelatory.

Los Angeles’ SML—that’s saxophonist Josh Johnson, guitarist Gregory Uhlmann, bassist Anna Butterss, synthesist Jeremiah Chiu, and percussionist Booker Stardrum—operate as if trying to prove a theory about the continuum that connects grooving avant-jazz and electronic music. To initiate their debut, Small Medium Large, the quintet captured a series of live improvised jams at the now-defunct L.A. space ETA; later, all manner of inspired post-production ensued among the band members.

For loyal subscribers to The Wire, this music will offer a delightful Rorschach test: Which krautrock band, minimalist composer, Afrobeat rarity, or ’90s jazztronica record does a particular moment evince? Which masterwork of Teo Macero tape-splicing do you hear? But Small Medium Large is wholly representative of jazz-adjacent music—fusion, if you’ll indulge this old man—as it thrives in the 2020s. 

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These are gifted improvisers of elite indie pedigree with an exhaustive commitment to ensemble sound—to the point where, given the electronics, it can be difficult to discern which instrument is making each blip. (Almost always a good sign.) From the ambience and dancey propulsion, certain moments persist in your recall: the hooky, sample-ready melodic bits that emerge on cuts like “Search Bar Hi Hat,” or Uhlmann’s Bill Frisell-ian loveliness on “Greg’s Melody.” Within the milieu of creative, atmospheric, tradition-defying music termed alternative jazz by default, this is important work. GRADE: B+

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