Thursday, July 19, 2007

Journey To The Margins Part 1

This is going to become a big multiple post catching up on some of the more unusual and esoteric sounds I’ve been immersing myself in this year. My musical tastes are continually expanding, particularly as I get further alienated by the focus of the mainstream music press and radio on generic guitar music that I’ve heard several hundred times before. I still value great songwriters as artists, as my previous few posts have explicitly stated, but I grew up with traditions of instrumental music, particularly jazz, and I’ve been building on these foundations with more ambitious and abstract listening habits of late.

I’ve particularly been meaning to write about David Torn’s remarkable ‘Prezens’ album for some time but have struggled to find words or even concepts that adequately capture its artistry. This is Torn’s first album as bandleader for the ECM label in twenty years, and what a remarkable group he has assembled for these sessions. With New York free improvising legend Tim Berne on saxophone, the in-demand Craig Taborn on keys and world class drummer Tom Rainey, this is a prime example of fascinating music drawn from collective improvisation. The pieces are all comprised from recordings of group sessions, to which Torn has added electronics and manipulated the structures. The resulting sound is nearly impossible to classify, although there are identifiable elements drawn from the free jazz tradition, fusion, heavy metal and electronica.

There is a striking attention to detail, and Torn’s emphasis is as much on mood, texture and sound as it is on technical virtuosity. Many guitarists these days use effects, processing and live sampling to manipulate their sound, but few have done this with as much success and originality as Torn achieves here. His own playing is frequently subsumed not just by the overall atmosphere but also by the group’s rampant and celebratory hard grooving. When he eventually comes to the foreground, it’s with a searing, excoriating force. More generally, there are times (particularly on the lengthy ‘Structural Functions Of Prezens’ and ‘Bulbs’) when the listener is hypnotically lulled into a false sense of security before the music explodes with dizzying, calamitous abandon. At its most extreme, the music is quite extraordinary in its lack of respect for classification. ‘Sink’ begins with a dirty groove that could almost be described as funky, before becoming increasingly abstract, with Berne exploiting the highest registers of his instrument. Rainey is simply superb throughout, delivering rhythms that are frequently breathtaking in their intricacy and invention.

It would be easy to overstate this record’s strangeness or ‘otherness’ but also essential to its impact is a very deep and ingrained understanding of the blues. This can be heard even in the album’s most deconstructionist moments. The opening ‘AK’ for example, is closely in touch with American blues traditions. Amidst all the clatter and clamour there is actually a very recognisable beating heart. In a year when the ECM is truly excelling itself, this may be their most significant release.

Bassist and composer Scott Colley has established himself as a major played in the New York jazz scene (he also features prominently on Kenny Werner’s rather strange ‘Lawn Chair Society’ album), but has been somewhat overlooked so far here in the UK. There’s a very peculiar review of the ‘Architect of the Silent Moment’ album over on that I find rather baffling. It argues that this music emphasises individual virtuosity over melodic accessibility. I have to confess that I was initially most struck by this album’s accessibility – the rhythm section is subtle but compelling, and the harmonised melodies seem to me to be attractive and mostly immediate in their impact. There’s an impressive reworking of Andrew Hill’s ‘Smoke Stack’, but everything else is a Colley original, and he already seems to have established some kind of signature sound. There’s no denying the improvisational chops of the individual group members (including Craig Taborn again, outstanding trumpeter Ralph Alessi and the exquisite Jason Moran guesting on piano), but there’s also a thematic quality to all of these pieces. It might be fair to argue that the rhythm section are sometimes too content to provide backing and don’t always converse as equals with the soloists, but this isn’t a consistent problem throughout. The record is best when making full use of the talents of Moran, especially as the contrast in styles between his piano and Taborn’s unpredictable, angular keyboard interruptions is powerful and arresting. There’s more to come from Colley for sure, but this is a pretty impressive calling card.

My Mercury musings of the past few days have already indicated that I’m genuinely impressed by the much hyped self titled debut from Fraud. This is frequently odd, discomforting and original music, dominated not just by joyous and disrespectful improvising, but also by outrageously crisp rhythm playing.

The band have a particularly novel line-up, deploying two drummers. This would seem like enough for most bands, but when one of those drummers is the immensely creative, chattery and fidgety Tim Giles (one of the best drummers on the London jazz circuit at present), it’s clear that this was always going to be a highly percussive record. Luckily, Fraud achieve this in a refreshingly unconventional way – there’s little sign of tedious drum battling or aggression – the group instead prefer to seek out the full range of sounds both from drum kits and from electronic percussion. They also use a baritone guitarist, but no bassist, which imbues the music with extra space and freedom.

The compositions frequently turn the conventions of group playing upside down, frequently beginning with abstract exposition before coalescing into more conventional rhythm-directed hard riffing. Saxophonist James Allsopp plays with a tone that is defiantly gritty and harsh, sometimes even intentionally nasty. The group also make considered use of keyboard and electronic textures.

It’s a peculiar clattering noise, but it’s not all fast and furious, and frequently there’s an obvious group dynamic at work. The closing ‘Mystery Box’ is as close as the group get to a conventional ballad, resembling as it does Charles Mingus’ ‘Goodbye Pork Pie Hat’, but it feels otherworldly and disorientating rather than melancholy, haunting or beautiful.

This inventive, fearless but ultimately enjoyable album gives further evidence of the brilliant health of British jazz right now.

My Mercury musings also directed me towards two albums on the wonderful Type label from 2006 that had sadly passed me by at the time. ‘The Dead Sea’ by Xela is simply superb, a compelling blend of drones, abstractions, guitar pluckings and strange percussive sounds that is both mysterious and riveting. Its central image of being lost at sea is powerful and terrifying, and the closing ‘Never Going Home’ concludes the set on a palpably bleak and resigned note. The use of seamless segues between the compositions makes the work feel like a complete and carefully structured whole, with subtle variations in texture providing shape and transition. It’s strongly influenced by the techniques of sound collage, and the shifting layers of noise are both cerebrally and emotionally affecting.

‘Coins and Crosses’ by Ryan Teague is an impressive offering in an increasingly fashionable sub-genre that sees contemporary composition merge with electronic experimentation. I’m not sure there’s anything particularly audacious in the compositional techiniques that Teague deploys, and the Cambridge Philharmonic Orchestra is mostly used to rather conventional effect. Teague has supposedly been strongly influenced by early sacred music, and as a result there are times when this album sounds very close to the much more successful spiritual works of Arvo Part. Still, the electronic sounds are successfully subsumed within the greater whole rather than overpowering the traditional textures, and there are some achingly beautiful melodies that flow effortlessly at the core of this music. This is more likely to offer inspiration to other electro-acoustic musicians than to establish Teague as a major composer in his own right, but it’s undoubtedly a pleasure to hear.

No comments: