Sixty years after Ornette Coleman released The Shape of Jazz to Come, contemporary musicians continue to challenge and expand upon the core tenets of the genre. Besides its notable anniversary, I mention Coleman’s breakthrough specifically due to its embodiment of disruption. The reception for his playing style has softened considerably over the last few decades, shifting from extreme polarization to being considered an essential component of jazz history. Coleman certainly wasn’t jazz’s first great innovator, but he remains one of the genre’s most important figures of change.
In a post-Shape world, the discourse around what constitutes “jazz” has become one of the most liberal conversations in modern music. This is what allows a group like The Biology of Plants to fit comfortably within the contemporary context of the genre. The quartet’s unique instrumental setup and eclectic approach to composition makes for a radiant display on Vol. 2.
The dynamic and dazzling proceedings begin promptly on “Ezra,” thanks to the harmony between Joshua Rivory’s keyboard and Simon Svoboda’s cello. Highlighting this pairing at the onset of the album illuminates the band’s affinity for classical and contemporary mindsets, as well as the synthesis of both ideals. A great deal of Vol. 2 sounds like instrumental reinterpretations of post-Kid A Radiohead accompanied by a classically trained cellist. Unsurprisingly, the group draws inspiration from other soundscape-driven artists, such as Sigur Rós, Tigran Hamasyan and Phillip Glass.
Turning back to “Ezra,” the remainder of the track evolves into the collision of art rock and cinematic jazz detailed above. Charles Hill and Helen Svoboda join on drums and bass, respectively, adding elements of warmth and energy to the groups performance. Notes from Rivory bounce around the swell of gorgeous textures created by his own backing electronics and the engulfing whirr of Svoboda bowing his cello. It’s a truly breathtaking track, and an exceptional way to begin the album.
Initially, “500 Million Bells (Part 1)” continues with these themes, eventually building toward a grand, flashy conclusion driven by an interplay of keys and percussion. “George” develops in a similar way, erupting with glitzy synth pads and punchy percussion for its grand finale. Throughout the album, it’s truly impressive how Svoboda weaves in his cello subtly but poignantly. The instrument could potentially wear out its welcome in other iterations of this lineup, but Svoboda always feels like a necessary addition.
This is especially true on “Basmati Rice,” a whimsical composition bursting with personality reminiscent of BADBADNOTGOOD. Svoboda bows his cello with a fresh, bright lyricism, complimenting the jazz-funk hook of Rivory’s keys. The full ensemble comes in by the end to build toward a fittingly bold, raucous conclusion, which sees Rivory play double duty with a noisy electronic backdrop.
After a brief interlude, the grooves continue on “Bourghal,” as the chilled-out funk vibe could easily be the basis for a Flying Lotus beat. This comparison is bolstered by Rivory’s piano and synth lines, which channel the casual finesse of a player like Herbie Hancock. Rivory eventually leads a tense, syncopated jam towards the end of the track, accented by bright flashes of synth. “500 Million Bells (Part 2)” also evolves into a liberated jam session, after some of Svoboda’s most gorgeous, classical-inspired moments.
Even deep in the track list, the band can still come through with some pleasant surprises. Guest musician Paul Svoboda incorporates a folk-tinged feel on “Food Baby” with some nylon-string guitar, a theme the band boosts further with some pleasant, simple vocal lines. It’s a fitting final pop of color before album closer “Moss,” a summation of the band’s preceding ideas. A swirl of echoing bells and cello ascend with a cloud of electronics up to a stirring peak, making for a beautiful and joyous conclusion to an album defined by a youthful, adventurous spirit.
On Vol. 2, The Biology of Plants epitomize jazz’s contemporary anatomy. Within the genre’s virtually definition-free landscape, the quartet have found opportunity in the simultaneous synthesis and dismantling of jazz norms, creating an exceptional, invigorating album in the process. Given the quartet’s penchant for exploring complex avenues of sound, there’s seemingly endless possibilities for them to explore as both players and composers. I’m confident this will be just the second of countless volumes in a long, fruitful career. For now, jazz fans should consider Vol. 2 a serious contender for a spot among their top releases of the year. I certainly am.
Vol. 2 is available June 14 via Art As Catharsis.