Personnel: Andy Laster - alto saxophone, Tom Rainey - drums, Herb Robertson - trumpet/cornet, Drew Gress - bass
from: JazzTimes, May 2001
by Peter Margasak
While the focus of this excellent New York quartet may be its edgy improvisations, the real star of Soft Shell, the third album by Andy Laster's Hydra, is the leader's compositional smarts. With tight contrapuntal arrangements that maximize the colors of the pianoless group's concise palette, alto saxophonist Laster—a founding member of the collective New and Used—meticulously structures the album's 11 wide-ranging freebopish pieces, employing frequent shifts in tempo, tone and attack to generate new stimuli for his fearsome soloists. Laster consistently finds potent ideas to propel each performance, like the schizoid two-section head of "Here I'll Stay/Go," which sets up a series of muscular, finely sculpted, floor-rumbling solos by drummer Tom Rainey, or the way "No. 16" tightens and relaxes with abrupt tempo changes and brief, alternating sections of rigidly arranged and loosely blown figures by Laster and trumpeter-cornetist Herb Robertson, only releasing the tension at the end of the tune with a wide-open coda.
While the frontline instrumentation loosely suggests plenty of harmonically advanced alto-trumpet pairings, from Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry to John Zorn and Dave Douglas, ultimately any such comparisons are superficial; Laster's cerebral and restrained playing is countered by Robertson's fat-toned extroversion, and the tension in those extremes is something that's all their own. It helps that Rainey and bassist Drew Gress have worked with each other so much; together their ability to accelerate and decelerate and drop strong, sudden accents without every seeming heavy-handed only enhances Laster's eventful writing.
Review: from Cleveland Scene, Apri 12, 2001
by Harvey Pekar
An important figure in the current new music scene, alto saxophonist Andy Laster leads an all-star quartet here with trumpeter/cornetist Herb Robertson, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Tom Rainey While certainly challenging, the group's music is also accessible, and there's even a standard on the disc, Kurt Weill's "Here I'll Stay." Laster, however, wrote the rest of the pieces. While some of his themes, including "South Shore Reform Experience Part 6," are quite beautiful, other tracks, such as "No. 16" and "Tentacles," are unpredictable, evoking the work of Ornette Coleman. Fans familiar with modern jazz shouldn't have trouble following what's going on here, as the solos are built on preset structures and steady tempos.
The instrumental work leaves little to be desired. Laster's solos, though angular and highly fragmented, are cliche-free and logically assembled. Robertson's a major if unsung musician, whose work comes out of the tradition of Lester Bowie and Don Cherry; he's also known for his extended techniques and the unusual timbres he produces. Here he plays in a somewhat more orthodox but still impressive manner, as he concentrates on improvising substantive lines instead of unique sonorities. One of the top contemporary, bassists, Gress isn't flashy, but has excellent technique. He's a supportive accompanist and a tasteful and musical soloist. Rainey is versatile, adapting his work to Laster's varied compositions. Laster's group does an exemplary job, individually and collectively, exhibiting originality, inventiveness and emotional involvement. If only there were more of an audience for this type of music.