He begins the understated opener “2019-07-08 I” with feather-soft brush swirls, but on the second cut, he sets Mondays’ stride, as a simple bell pattern builds into a leisurely rhythmic stroll. Thirteen minutes in, the mood breaks. Bellerose hits some heavy quarter notes on his hi-hat; Butterss leans into a fat bassline; saxophone arpeggios, probably looped, float in front of us like smoke rings lingering in the air. It’s a glorious moment, punctuated by clinking glasses and a distant “whoo!” so perfectly placed we become aware of not only the setting, but also the supple knob-turns of engineer Bryce Gonzales in post-production. Anyone who’s heard great improvisation at a bar in the company of both jazzheads and puzzled onlookers knows this dynamic—for some, the music was incidental. Others experienced a revelation.
Lodged in this familiar situation is the question of what such “ambient jazz” means to accomplish—whether it wants to occupy the center of our consciousnesses, or resign itself to the background. The record’s perpetual soloing offers an answer. Never screechy, grating, or aggressive, each performance is nonetheless highly individual. Even when the quartet settles into an extended groove, a spotlight shines on Johnson, Butterss, and Parker in turn, steadily illuminating a perpetual sense of invention. Their interplay feels almost traditional, suggesting bandstand trade-offs of yore, yet the open-ended structure of their jams keeps it unconventional.
Mondays works in layers: Its metronomic rhythms pacify, but the performers and their idiosyncratic expressions offer ample material to those interested in hearing young luminaries and seasoned vets swap ideas within a group. In 2020, Johnson dropped his first record under his own name, the excellent, daringly melodic Freedom Exercise, while Butterss’ recent debut as bandleader, Activities, is one of the most exciting, undersung jazz releases of 2022. Akin to Parker’s early experiments with Tortoise and Chicago Underground, Johnson and Butterss’ recordings both revel in electronic textures, and each features the other as a collaborator. Mondays captures them as their mature playing styles gain sea legs atop the rudder of Parker’s guitar.
The only track recorded after the pandemic began, closer “2021-04-28” sculpts the record’s loping structure, giving retrospective shape to the preceding hour of ambience. In the middle of the song, Parker’s guitar slows to a yawn; the drums pipe down. After a couple minutes of drone, Bellerose slips back into the mix alongside a precisely phrased guitar line strummed on the upper frets, punctuated by saxophone accents that exclaim with the force of an eager hype man. Beginning with a murmur, the album ends with a bracing statement, a passage so articulated that it actually feels spoken.