Jeff Kaiser and Tom McNalley
Hello the Damage!,
The Empty Cage Quartet
Ellen Burr
[All on Pfmentum]     

Pfmentum is a jazz label and newsletter based in the states aiming to 'support and advocate new music'. This seems to me a rather understated claim; most record companies claim to promote 'new music' in the sense that they release debut albums, but much of this is 'new music' in a far more fundamental sense. This is certainly true of Zugzwang, a collaboration between Pfmentum's founder Jeff Kaiser and guitarist Tom McNalley. Certainly I have personally never heard jazz with such a strong electronic element. The album is recorded live, with no overdubs, with Kaiser using a quarter-tone trumpet, McNalley on guitar duties, and both clearly doing a lot of knob-twiddling and box-stamping. The variety of sounds this produces is astounding, with the guitar in opening track 'Carbon Fianchetto' sounding more like an abused collection of scaffold poles and springs than any conventional instrument, and the quarter-tone trumpet punctuating the first minute or so with abrasive bursts of distorted noise. This is not to say that audio violence is the sole attraction; further into the track the trumpet has been looped, and creates ethereal, bass-laden swells as the guitar clangs and shimmers on top, and 'Aristotelian Blockade' even has some straight-up conventional brass sounds coming through. However in many tracks it is far harder to spot which instruments are making which sounds, made even more complicated by the use of loops and delay to build up the textures of each song, with a special mention going to the beautiful, watery feedbacks in 'Opening Demand'. The most impressive thing about this though is that it is nigh impossible to detect the loops, since any repetitions are treated with different effects and the whole piece is therefore always changing; they donāt settle for setting up a backdrop and then playing over it.

The name of the album refers to a situation in chess where a player is forced to make a move, even though it can only be a harmful one. It is a well chosen name. The different oscillations, filters and panning in the music produce a tangible sense of movement very hard to describe; you can feel literally pulled and pushed in different directions, particularly if listened to at a high volume. It strikes me that it is also relevant to challenge faced by Kaiser and McNalley in making this sort of music; the question of musical interplay is so dramatically different to other types of jazz. The pieces move from substantially thick and noisy passages to moments of otherworldly stillness, from being grating and menacing to eerily calm. While open to accusations of pretentiousness, I feel this huge variation in mood saves the album from simply being a sourcebook of sonic research. There were times listening to this when I found it alien to think of what I was listening to as being made by musicians because of the kind of atmosphere and effect it is capable of producing. Although it does always change, the sense of organic growth in these shifts allows the listener to drift with the sound, and the unique perceptual effects it offers. This is not dinner party music of course, in fact I think even if you have plenty of friends who share this interest it is still best experienced alone and without distraction, but this is a great opportunity to see some of the more outlandish places that music and sound can take you to.

On now to Hello the Damage by the Empty Cage Quartet, which although innovative and loose is more recognizable as a jazz release than Zugzwang, whose experimentation would not sound out of place on the roster of electronic labels like Warp Records. This is a double CD covering two live performances, and it must be said that the production instantly gives off a very live, though clear, feel. Audience sound is retained, cropping up occasionally during the tracks as well as the start, when some of the more intense moments give rise to whoops and cheers that would be more expected at a rock concert. Each track (two on the first disc, just one on the second) is credited as either two or three actual compositions, but the liner notes help clarify that these are more in the line of prepared motifs to be improvised around. Due to the smooth development throughout itās often hard to spot where these shift into the other, and the variety in the pieces might just as easily indicate a dozen different movements. One of the particularly noticeable aspects of this group is their tight control of dynamics, and the swift reaction to change instigated by another player. The rhythm section is constant, using kit and contrabass, but the two wind players range from using trumpet, flugelhorn, alto sax, clarinet and wood flute, and these two players in particular have an excellent instinctive relationship.

The opening of the first track is marked by weaving, rhythmic interplay between the two brass players that balances free and slightly dissonant playing with a comfortable groove and enjoyable quirkiness, given a strong counterpoint by drums and bass that hold it together without taking away the spontaneous feel. As the track progresses the drums drop slightly but the beat becomes steadier, and the bass more rolling, allowing the track to gain momentum even as the brass lines break off into freer improvisation. All players are capable of tremendous restraint as well as the exuberance so instantly apparent, in fact there are moments of near perfect silence, and it is noticeable that there is no sound to be heard whatsoever from the crowd. I can imagine why. As sound creeps back in the quartet comes into its own, sonorous bass swells and clanging cymbals and bells build up at a snailās pace, as one of the wind players switches to clarinet, engaging in more beautiful interplay with his brass counterpart. The drama of this piece is excellently balanced, with sometimes extreme bending and vibrato, and sudden dynamic swells and contractions. This builds to the moment that really sold me on this group, despite my limited experience of free jazz; 22 minutes into the track it creeps into what I assume is the third and last movement, 'The Mactavish Rag'. This is, plain and simple, fun. A nursery-like, jaunty tune, it shows quite ably that these are musicians who are in it for enjoyment, not some highbrow standard of 'appreciation', and that's all to the good. While this is my favorite moment of the album, both discs contain excellent performances that take a listener far beyond clichŽs of noisy, atonal, free jazz, and into an atmosphere where propulsive, exciting grooves can sit alongside floating, lounge-like passages and carnival excitement. The long silence between the perfectly restrained end of the performance on the second disc and the enthusiastic applause hints at what a great spectacle these players would be live.

Finally, an album in some ways even odder than the Kaiser/McNalley release, Duos. Composed by flautist Ellen Burr (although she points out in the liner notes that 50% of the tunes are improvised in collaboration with the various other musicians) several of the tracks utilise 'graphic scores'. Inspecting the samples given in the liner notes in some ways confuses more than it explains. Using a variety of card systems, and one similar application of the method to a painting (which is not reproduced), instrumentalists interpret the density, movement and direction of line-based illustrations to produce some frequently manic pieces. I must admit that since only portions (usually the middle section) of the pieces are shown, and in one case there is simply a rather obtuse explanation of method, I found it easier not to attempt to analyse how these had been used to create the finished product. At times listening to this CD I could imagine a casual observer thinking that I had either gone completely mad or become irredeemably pretentious. Sometimes the purpose of listening to music like this, beyond an intellectual interest in methodology, evades me.

This is not to say that this release doesnāt have some excellent musicianship on display, though, and the opening track is an excellent showcase for Burr's virtuosity and unique style. Her playing in 'Ball of Yarn' mixes flurries of notes with frequent vocal interjections, squeaks and breaths, and most interestingly the production at points emphasises the clicks of the keys to the point where they can be used as a percussive tool. This tumbling, freeform approach can be very expressive at times, and some of her slow bends contain a tortured kind of rasp, mixed with the use of breaths, that illustrates well the breadth of her playing. This variety and the contrast of sparse, stuttering moments with sections of unhinged energy do show playfulness at work, and I would be doing the album a disservice to present it as a simple piece of chin-stroking. 'Canon-Cards-Canon 1' is probably the track where this sense of fun comes across most. A duet between alto flute and bassoon, using the aforementioned card-based graphic scores, it sounds at times like a deliciously wonky setting for a childrenās cartoon. The two instruments work well together, and the bassoon often serves to provide balance to the squeakier flute moments. Indeed itās somewhat easier to enjoy the more abstract sounds Burr utilises when another instrument is present, even if, as with the prepared bass of 'Senbazuru', the extra instrument is being used in an unconventional way. In fact the prepared bass, like the keys of the flute in 'Ball of Yarn', adds some much appreciated rhythmic structure to the piece, and by having something to play off it seems that Burrās natural timing comes through more clearly. In fact not to seem too 'conventional' about this but I would like to have heard more points when this timing comes through, particularly in the only piece to actually use percussion, 'Four Square', where Burr gets into a groove with the drums briefly before moving back into more abstract territory. Her masterful technique is still put to good use in this portion, but for slightly less than a minute the music made a more visceral connection with me, and while it is enriching to hear music that places demands on the listener it can only go for so long before I want to be grabbed by the guts and taken somewhere. For flautists this is an album that could seriously widen your ambitions and palette, for others it is an interesting release, but one I would take in small doses.               

        © Nicholas Hunt 2007