Improvisation has a fascinating potential to convey personality. The four personalities in Positive Knowledge shine through in amazing detail on the two-disc set At the Center of the Threshold.
Oluyemi Thomas, featured most prominently here on soprano saxophone and bass clarinet, delivers performances brimming over with a personal touch. His work on At the Center draws heavily from the offerings of the free jazz tradition: bird-like squawking and pointillist thrusts appear everywhere. But rather than using these tools as a means for shock or drama, the saxophonist devotes his effort to developing ideas. One has the sense from listening to his playing that he is trying to vocalize and extend thoughts. Never having met Thomas, I'd guess he's a gentle, careful, sensitive individual who is just as eager to listen as he is to speak.
Oluyemi's partner and collaborator Ijeoma Thomas makes some of the most daring statements of any member of Positive Knowledge. When she performs (speaking/singing poetry, or using her voice as a pure musical instrument) she tends to mobilize the group. In some sense, Positive Knowledge often serves as a vehicle for her vocal work. Thomas delivers her poetry, often visual and narrative, with deliberate emphasis on key words or phrases. Her flair for drama spurs the group to extend the emotional range of the music, alternately edging toward peace and conflict. Her non-verbal vocals offer a similarly vivid thrust, though they tend not to flow quite as naturally.
Bassist Wilber Morris contributes a subtle touch. Rather than going for the thunder-and-lightning approach made popular by free bassists such as William Parker, Morris prefers to craft melodic connections, vertical splashes, and gently pulsing rhythms. His interplay with drummer Michael Wimberly (made legendary through work with volcanic saxophonist Charles Gayle) often involves a gently swaying pulse created spontaneously and intuitively in the moment. Wimberley is a color percussionist who also pays due attention to the beat. While he occasionally explores polyrhythmic detail, his greatest talent lies in accents, clusters, and irregular motifs. More than most drummers, Wimberley actively converses with the other musicians. So when the group sound climaxes, he's there with some spice to keep things rolling. And when the group relaxes, he offers a rounder, more earthy sound.
Group improvisation, of course, also offers great potential for social communication. The interplay on At the Center is predictably creative and subtle, given the personalities and talents of the musicians involved. The shared language of free improvisation goes beyond jazz, beyond the blues, beyond swing, and beyond whatever other formal structures one can name. But it also includes elements of these traditions, sewn together in a fabric that changes unpredictably over time.