Max Light

Chaotic Neutral

Chaotic Neutral is neither. It is off-kilter and sometimes jarring, but deliberately (and very meticulously) so; the angularity and fraught emotion that guitarist-composer Max Light suffuses it with never goes down easy enough to approach neutrality. What it is, though, is complex, shrouded in mystery and endlessly intriguing.

Much of the album’s off-kilter quality comes via its rhythms. Light descends from the Andrew Hill–Guillermo Klein school of adding or subtracting eighth notes from a stable time signature, putting quite a heavy load on the shoulders of bassist Walter Stinson and drummer Steven Crammer. (Particularly the latter: Simply sketching the outlines of the opening “Pathos,” or comping Caleb Curtis’s stritch solo on “Brown Bear,” become akin to drum solos.) Not that the guitarist lets himself off easy, having to navigate the melodies of “Pathos,” “Brown Bear” and the title track — the latter for which pianist Julian Shore, who doubles Light, also gets props — across glitch-like grooves. Yet that gives him a chance to show off some serious chops even before getting to the improvised gymnastics. “Chaotic Neutral” is essentially a master class in cutting paths through tricky meters.

Which surfaces another adjective for Chaotic Neutral: demanding. These rhythms, and their attendant melodies and harmonies, are often uncomfortable at first. Sometimes the payoff comes in track sequencing: if one makes it through the difficult “Pathos,” the prize is the sinuous sunrise of “Vals Quartzite.” Sometimes the smoother foundations yield tougher tunes, as on the delicate, eerie “Is It True” and “Wash.” But there’s always a foothold of beauty tucked in somewhere, as in Shore’s gorgeous rumination on “Is It True.” And sometimes the jagged stuff is its own reward: Check the witty, Thelonious Monk-like lope of “Brown Bear” for proof.

Contrary to his name, Light doesn’t do light material. But for the listener, heavy lifting comes with heavy recompense.

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