Differences between recent Paul Flaherty records usually have more to do with who else is playing with him than with anything Flaherty himself plays, and Cold Bleak Heat’s It’s Magnificent, But It Isn’t War is no exception. Cold Bleak Heat features Flaherty, a saxophonist, along with drummer Chris Corsano, trumpeter Greg Kelley and bassist Matt Heyner.
Flaherty, Corsano and Kelley frequently play together and issued an album in 2002 as a trio called Sannyasi. If you ever heard that fireball of a record, you know pretty much what to expect here. Flaherty’s huge squeals and blues-inflected runs bring to mind Noah Howard and Albert Ayler. Corsano's drumming still manages to be incredibly busy but also responsive. And Kelley is just as convincing as a post-Don Cherry free jazz trumpeter as he is in his usual (and completely different) role as an extended-technique noisemaker on his solo records and with saxophonist Bhob Rainey.
That leaves Heyner, who’s best known as a member of the No Neck Blues Band and Test. The noises he makes tend to blend in a bit with the drums, leaving the two horns peeking out over the top. Heyner and Corsano form a unit that insinuates instead of proclaiming, that manages to stay in the background even in some of its loudest moments. Many bassists playing with Flaherty would be inclined to attack their instruments like Peter Kowald in the 1970s or to play walking basslines like William Parker might, but Heyner doesn’t really do either of these things. In fact, he often plays some lovely drones.
Heyner’s sustains are worthy of praise in and of themselves, in that they feel like they need to exist, as if he played them because they were the only appropriate option. But they excite me because they frame Flaherty’s playing in a new way. Flaherty’s approach isn’t that different here than on any of his other recent records, but his sinuous arpeggios atop Heyner’s overtone-rich drone on “The Blue Dabs of Varicose Veins” evoke some sort of really scary backwoods cult ritual. (Actually, Flaherty lives outside Hartford, so I doubt he has anything to do with any backwoods cult rituals. Okay, I admit: some part of me has always wanted Flaherty’s music to sound more like this, due to his associations with various proponents of the New England free folk scene.) In any case, Heyner complements Flaherty, Kelley and Corsano in a wonderful way, managing to cast their playing in a different light even though their individual styles remain intact. Cold Bleak Heat is... magnificent?