Tom Rainey Trio Credit: courtesy the artist

I had listened to Hotel Grief (Intakt) several times before I noticed that leader and drummer Tom Rainey, guitarist Mary Halvorson, and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock were credited for improvising all five pieces when the recording was made live at New York’s Cornelia Street Café in April 2014. I’m still shaking my head in disbelief that it was all created on the spot. Although the performances ripple with an attractive looseness and sense of space, the musicians shape melodies with such empathy and cooperative grace that the music feels composed and rehearsed. Halvorson and Laubrock engage in a steady balancing act; Halvorson frequently lays down chordal patterns that alternately hang in the air or shift with rapid, hopscotch pointillism, which allows Laubrock to run biting lines up and down her partner’s movement. At other times the guitarist unspools wonderfully jagged lines that slalom amid the saxophone parts and swerve alongside them. That’s not to say the music doesn’t ever explode with frenzied, free-flowing intensity—the final moments of “Last Overture” splatter with a burst of harried rhythm, split notes, and noise—but more often than not the trio navigate their lyric terrain with uncanny anticipation and rapport. Behind the front line, Rainey is a marvel of control, toggling between gentle, fractured swing that treads lightly on balladlike passages and driving rhythms that amplify the tension and power of his bandmates’ feverish interactions. The musicians have worked together in numerous contexts over the years, and it seems that they’ve developed an ultrasharp, almost telepathic sensibility—this is improvised music at the highest level.   v