Chicago experimental jazz creatives Jason Stein & Adam Shead join forces on challenging but rewarding new album, Synaptic Atlas

Courtesy of Ears & Eyes Records

Envelope-pushing bass clarinetist Jason Stein is no stranger in contributing to spellbinding jazz albums. His impactful playing on Chicago trio Threadbare’s debut earlier this year propelled the record to the cutting edge of contemporary jazz.

And now, unfinished with releasing music in 2020, Stein partners with Chicago journeyman drummer, Adam Shead, to create a new harmonious and chaotic collaboration titled Synaptic Atlas. The eight-track, 43-minute experimental romp is full of background chatter, exclamations and sounds of objects crashing to the ground, giving the impression that the playing of the duo is so powerful that it knocks over everything in its radius.

Opting for tight free jazz improvisations over extended solos, Stein and Shead cultivate a variety of moods across Synaptic Atlas, whether it’s the bluesy feel of “Intuition” or the ominous nature of “Compassion.” Throughout the collaboration, the duo approaches each track as a blank slate, knowing it will only work if they both color it in with complimentary playing. The negative space of opener, “Observation” initially tests the waters with sparse drum taps and bass clarinet phrases that go from soothing, to chaotic to later resembling an elephant’s trumpet or a frog’s croak, usually all in the space of a few bars.

Most numbers on Synaptic Atlas span the digestible length of three to eight minutes, but the aptly named, “Endurance” presents the most challenging but rewarding 12 minutes the record has to offer. At times, Shead’s drumming on the song sounds as if he’s playing pots and pans. All the while, Stein traverses scales over a loose chord progression, his pitches fluctuating in sync with the fervent percussion.

Listening to “Endurance” is like making the summit push on Everest: taxing on the body but ultimately worth it. You’re almost to the end of the trip. The only songs that follow are the synthetic and experimental track, “Economy” and the intensely frenetic, deconstructed closer, “Capitulation.” The lengthy outro on the latter provides a gentle cool-down from all the reedy squeals and ringing cymbals that precede it. It’s a fitting close to a jazz album that keeps the listener guessing right up to the end.

The sole portion of the record that sounds slightly repetitive is the four minutes and ten seconds of the fifth track, “Analysis,” which feels like a less-realized version of the standout song, “Compassion.” But, when viewing the record as a whole, even “Analysis” possesses the ferocious energy that separates the release from nearly every jazz full-length this year.

Stein and Shead’s new collaborative effort succeeds in being the rare jazz album that’s equally experimental and digestible, towing the line between pleasing and trying to the ears. With “Endurance” being this record’s only true test, Synaptic Atlas is worth diving into if only to witness two textural masters ricochet sonically rich rhythms, melodies and ideas atop an empty canvas.


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