Tuesday, February 19, 2013
SPRING HEEL JACK - The Blue Series Continuum – Masses (2001)
Label: Thirsty Ear – THI57103.2
Series: The Blue Series – (Artistic Director of Blue Series: Matthew Shipp)
Format: CD, Album; Country: US - Released: 2001
Style: Abstract, Downtempo, Free Improvisation, Free Jazz
Recorded upstairs at the Strongroom, London & Sorcerer Sound NYC, 2001
Executive Producer – Peter Gordon; Producer – Ashley Wales, John Coxon
Mastered By – Nick Webb
Mixed By – Oliver Meacock
Recorded By – Chris Flam, Oliver Meacock
The British electronica duo Ashley Wales & John Coxon with Tim Berne, Guillermo E. Brown, Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter, Mat Maneri, Ed Coxon, Evan Parker, William Parker, Matthew Shipp and George Trebar.
Spring Heel Jack entered the electronica scene in the mid-90's, clearly on the living-room listening side of the drum-n-bass spectrum. The beats on 1996's 68 Million Shades came complex, but despite their rapid pace the overall sonic texture was subdued, making for a smooth, pedestrian vibe. The following album, Busy Curious Thirsty, locked into the harder dance groove that was developing at the time, though a closer listen showed that the real intent was the creation of a roughened, more diverse sound. The new direction lost a lot of their audience, though, and the ambient pieces were numbingly repetitious. In a typical major label move, Island dropped the duo from its roster.
Since then, John Coxon and Ashley Wales have been working hard, and each of their recent endeavors have been more successful-- from the driving, eerie Treader to the slightly softer, more cinematic Disappeared and the noisy ambient experiments collected on Oddities. They've also taken a cue from Fila Brazillia, who produced the strangely pristine luster on Greg Dulli's Twilight Singers project. Coxon & Wales collaborated with Low in 2000 on the Bombscare EP, in which all junglist tendencies vanished, subsumed into Low's stark minimalism; likewise, Alan Sparhawk & Co. found their fragile song frames reinforced by a mesh of synthetic subtlety and carefully controlled drones. The union got called "experimental" mostly due to the uncomfortable tension the album evoked.
Masses invigorates the Thirsty Ear label's fusion project, "The Blue Series Continuum." Spring Heel Jack have toyed with jazz since their early days-- sampling a brassy trumpet trill here, employing a live percussion sample from Tortoise there-- but as time progressed, they showed interest in jazz as a structural template rather than cut-and-paste decoration. For Masses, they recorded a number of ambient soundscapes composed of crackling feedback and found sound (once again absent of breakbeats), and gathered choice labelmates to improvise over the recordings. Some of the most influential names in the new breed of free jazz participated, from the dynamic duo of pianist Matthew Shipp and double bassist William Parker to mercurial saxophonist Evan Parker. The result is the most intense, fascinating album of Spring Heel Jack's career.
"Chorale" opens in static pulses. Shipp hesitantly takes lead with four- and five-note piano clusters, while William Parker's bass explores the space between the rumbling drones. One aspect of the prerecorded soundtracks is that the musicians can slow down and test intimate, abstract harmonies usually only available to duos and trios. Evan Parker's lone soprano sax line repeats after long intervals, intriguingly programmatic considering his usual repertoire. This melancholy motif is the only semblance of melody in the entire song, and the noir ambience would fit perfectly in Blade Runner when Deckard sips his drink alone in the dim living room.
"Chiaroscuro" defines an opposite approach-- an amplified two-note bassline followed by a handclap serves as the rhythmic anchor for the entire track. Hardly boring, this relentless, aggressive reverb is the current through which Daniel Carter runs his saxophone, at first a playful expedition that becomes increasingly strained and frenetic. Guillermo Brown busts three minutes afterwards with overlapping bass-drum rolls and snares, adding to the uneasiness. Trying to isolate the organic from the preprocessed is difficult; at times, the streaks of Ed Coxon's violin blend seamlessly with the humming bed of distortion.
The title track, on which all players are involved, is by far the standout. Brown plays schizophrenically liberated percussion, abusing cowbells and the drumstand itself as pianist Shipp jabs at the low register ivory keys. A sudden crescendo: seconds too late, you realize these were pebbles before the rockslide. The onslaught erupts, burying the listener in a lung- collapsing surge of saxophone wails, trumpet squeals and double-bass throttling. The moment ends as soon as it began, dispersing into Brown's maniacally inspired building-block clatter. If the ascendant free jazz of the 1960's came to be known as "Fire Music," the elemental force here takes place somewhere between metamorphic earth and storm-strewn air, though the electrical fury can hardly be traced back along its silicate tangents to any original resting place.
But don't assume that the entire album is impenetrable noise. A few short interludes separate the longer works, giving single musicians the chance to test their mettle against the compositions. On "Cross," I felt transported to a swirling fantasia, sure that the background was tampering with Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" until I realized that this was just Mat Maneri in the foreground on acoustic and electric viola. "Salt" is a comparatively straightforward number, launched by Brown and William Parker's hard-bop rhythm and spiced by Shipp's Monk-like vamping. But the final track, "Coda," returns to the spatial acoustics of the first. Coxon and Wales pull the buzzing chimes of their earliest work off the lathe, causing the trumpet-like microtonality of Maneri's viola to recede into the background.
Masses compresses so many components: improv artists from New York jam with Londoners and other Europeans, organic instruments collide with digital spree, free jazz is tempered by prerecorded loops. Curated by Matthew Shipp and sequenced by the Spring Heel boys, this is steaming hot fusion, a record whose density and emotional nuance requires repeated listening to decipher. Many questions are raised, but the one that tugs most anxiously in my mind is whether Coxon and Wales will attempt improvisational electronics themselves on future projects.
_ By Christopher Dare, June 5, 2001 (Pitchfork)
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