Three Story Sandbox, Artful Dodgers Review
Beyond Free Jazz: A Deep Dive into Three Story Sandbox’s Artful Dodgers
by Sylvannia Garutch
The album, Artful Dodgers, is a fascinating project by the group Three Story Sandbox. This ensemble is an evolution from a past musical journey that began with their 2016 debut, Three Story Sandbox, and the notable improvised duets from Snakeheads & Ladybugs in 2014. Central figures in this musical narrative are drummer Jack Mouse and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson. Their musical understanding was expanded upon with the inclusion of Janice Borla, a vocalist whose capabilities are likened to instrumental mastery. With Artful Dodgers, the sonic texture is further enriched by the addition of violin virtuoso, Mark Feldman.
Artful Dodgers is an exquisite continuation of Three Story Sandbox’s journey, but it stands on its own, imbued with distinct qualities and flavors. The album title, inspired by a nimble-fingered character from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, intriguingly alludes to the dynamic and nimble nature of improvisation, emphasizing controlled chaos where every sound feels deliberately placed, yet free-flowing.
The opening track, “Twin Rivers,” offers listeners a palpable experience of the album’s essence. The title captures the simultaneous individuality and connectedness, much like two rivers sharing a common journey but maintaining their distinct courses. The interplay between Robinson’s tenor saxophone and Mouse’s drum set paints this picture effectively, setting the stage for the tracks that follow. The improvisation commences with a conversational tone, escalates to a swinging climax, and then gracefully returns to its initial dialogue-like cadence.
“Kalahari Crossing” finds Mouse engaging in a captivating musical dialogue with Borla and Feldman. Borla’s inclusion in Three Story Sandbox was due to her profound musical knowledge, technique, and comprehension of abstract concepts — attributes synonymous with masterful instrumental improvisers. Feldman’s diverse background, spanning jazz to 20th-century contemporary music, adds a layer of depth and innovation. His innovative violin techniques set the stage, complemented beautifully by Borla’s warm and agile vocals. Throughout the piece, Mouse serves as the binding element, steering the musical dialogue with inspired precision.
The diversity in track settings, from duets to quartets, ensures a fresh soundscape is presented at every turn. “Kamakura” stands out for its evocative portrayal of the ancient Japanese capital, with bamboo flute and Japanese percussion summoning aural imageries of distant, mystic landscapes. In this track, the conversational interplay among the four performers exemplifies their exceptional talent for free improvisation, balancing clarity with a compelling groove. Another poignant track featuring the quartet is “Tears for Ukraine.” The anguish and chaos embodied in this composition transport the listener to the heart of a tragic, tumultuous narrative, echoing the sorrow of global events.
From the inventive instrumental combinations in tracks like “Slip ‘n’ Slide,” which features the rare slide saxophone, to the playful dynamics of “Brush Dance,” the album offers a wealth of exploration in sound, technique, and emotion. Notably, “Fiddle Sticks” invites a smile with its candid title and the lively exchange between the drums and violin. The impeccable chemistry between Mouse and Feldman is evident throughout. Particularly noteworthy is Feldman’s ability to weave a narrative using his original motif.
Artful Dodgers isn’t just another “free jazz” album. It’s an auditory exploration that ventures into the territories of mood, ambience, and compelling atmospheres. Every track tells its unique story, making it a mosaic of tales bound together by spontaneity, virtuosity, and a clear vision. In a time where free improvisation can often sound chaotic, this album consistently offers spontaneous yet beautifully organized improvisations. With Artful Dodgers, Three Story Sandbox continues to showcase their individual and collective brilliance and their creativity and skill in freely improvised music.