Friday, March 19, 2010
My old friend Ben Hall, who is a great drummer/percussionist has been kind enough to invite me to record with him on LP’s that he’s produced on his labels. The first LP we made together “MELEE+Joe Morris Cloud Atlas" (Broken Research) came out last year. It features Ben, Hans Beutow on cello and Nate Wooley on trumpet. Our latest release “Glass Key” (You Are Your Only Machine) is co-led and co-produced by Chris Riggs who also plays guitar on the recording. Chris has a very unique approach to the guitar—sort of out of the Keith Rowe school using the guitar-as-sound-canvas approach. He has invented some very rigorous methods of playing the instrument in that regard.
Ben, Nate, Hans, and Chris are very strong musicians who make very unique music. Each situation I am in with them provides me with a different challenge and forces me to try things that I might not do in another setting. I’ve always been interested in coaxing new sounds out of the guitar, but I generally avoided any preparation of the instrument, choose instead to use technique. However in 2008 I performed Mauricio Kagel’s composition Der Schall under the direction of Anthony Coleman at Merkin Hall in New York City, which called for me to use various stringed instruments with all sorts of preparation. That experience opened my mind to the process in a new way. So considering that change I feel particularly lucky to have the chance to work with these great musicians in Glass Key.
Here is what a couple of folks have written about the new LP.
Debut LP for a new private press imprint run by percussionist Ben Hall (Graveyards/Broken Research) and guitarist/inventor Chris Riggs. This is a two guitar/drums blow-out described by Hall as taking the Blue Humans’ legacy of rock-inflected electronic improvisation out of noise and back into free/jazz modes. Joe Morris is, of course, one of the most inventive guitarists ever to use jazz theory as a launching pad for nosedives. Here his musical persona is a little crankier and more ‘Industrial’ than on previous outings, still trading in actual notes but smearing them and misarticulating so that its more about timbre, the specific metallic quality of the strings, than melodic development. Indeed, the whole group have a distinctive ‘metallic’ feel, with Hall playing skittering rhythms cut up with tiny architectures of cymbal klang while Riggs, well, it’s hard to know *exactly* what he’s doing but his playing expands on aspects of his solo work , running a conveyor belt of cycling timbres and rhythms that seem completely divorced from the nature of the guitar yet are in actuality intimately related to the specifics of its construction. While the music couldn’t really be described as ‘high energy’ – the pace is slow, corrosive, deliberately nuanced – Glass Key presents some of the most aggressively aformal and unequivocally blunt music to come out of this Michigan think-tank to date. Hand-numbered edition of only 300 copies in heavy card envelope sleeves with full-colour paste-on art. Recommended. VOLCANIC TONGUE
JOE MORRIS/CHRIS RIGGS/BEN HALL - Glass Key [Ltd Ed LP] (You Are Your Only Machine 01; USA) 300 copies, numbered by hand. Featuring Joe Morris on electric guitar, Chris Riggs on electric guitar and Ben Hall on drums. We all know Joe Morris and now thanks to percussionist Ben Hall who runs the Broken Research LP/MP3 label, we now meet an experimental guitarist from Michigan named Chris Riggs. This is an odd but unique trio and ultimately fascinating. While Joe & Ben create a quick yet restrained guitar & drums dialogue, Chris plays soft noise counterpoint. This album was carefully recorded so that each sound and exchange is distinct, the dynamic range is warm and wide. On side two Mr. Morris and/or Mr. Riggs rubs his or their strings with a pick getting a most eerie sound while the skeletal drums evoke restless ghosts. The sliding and bending of the strings keep things off balance as if we are about to fall into an endless hole. Riggs sounds as if he is communicating with insects by tapping cautiously on his guitar. The overall sound is somewhat disorienting but most effective. Although each side of this record is relatively short (about 13 minutes), it seems like just the right length to contemplate its subtle wonders. - Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Keith Rowe gave a Master Class at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston on Tuesday. He is visiting this week to participate in a residency with the composer Christian Wolfe. Four full days of performances, rehearsals and other activities of and about Wolfe’s compositions, are taking place in conjunction with the Classical and Contemporary Improvisation Departments.
I had only met Keith once before, in 2000 in Wels, Austria. Just like that first time when I introduced myself today he greeted me with a very nice warm hello. He is a very nice soft-spoken gentleman, who looks you right in the eye and seems genuinely interested in you. I told him that everyone was very excited to hear him speak. He responded by smiling and saying “I hope they aren’t too excited”.
His Master Class was mostly a talk with questions and ended with a group of students playing for him. He started by recounting his days as a student, being a jazz guitar player, and studying painting an art school in Plymouth, England, where he had the chance to jam in the basement jazz club with American GI musicians, but gradually getting bored with the constraints of playing jazz on the guitar. It was quite interesting to hear him discuss the issues of originality and ambiguity in painting versus jazz guitar circa 1958. I have always understood that in his case the decision to lay the guitar flat and deal with it in the same manner that Jackson Pollack dealt with the canvas was a creative and personal one that resulted in a different use and direction for the instrument and some beautiful music. It was great to be able to ask him why he didn’t just abandon the guitar and make a stringed instrument that was different than the guitar. His answer was that he enjoyed the challenge that came with the “burden” of the guitar—something he compared to the burden that painters of that period felt from the square canvas. When I said that I felt that playing normal guitar was a burden as well he agreed with a smile.
He was asked about his guitar-playing contemporaries in the UK, and of course Derek Bailey was mentioned, but I was really happily surprised when he mentioned John McLaughlin as the other player of importance in that period. He searched for the name of McLaughlin’s great record “Extrapolation” so I called it out and he asked me “What did you think of it Joe?” I responded that I thought it was beautiful. His casual interaction with all of us made for an easy exchange. I asked him a few questions I already knew the answers to, but that I thought the students should hear. His answers covered nearly the whole of his musical methodology, aesthetic and passions, and were delivered in a balanced and kindly but assertive series of declarations. One highlight was his story of a visit from some Japanese archers to a meeting of the secret society of Gurdjieff devotees that he belonged to, and how the focus, determination, precision and exactitude of their shooting of an arrow inspired him to think of making music in the same way—as if it you had one shot to make the perfect sound, so it must be exactly what should happen at that exact moment. He also talked extensively about how he classifies the objects he uses to generate sound on the guitar, how they are divided by the traditional use of the hands on the instrument, and how he thinks he uses 230 parameters of information to determine whether a sound is unique and useful.
Towards the end of the 90-minute Master Class he invited a few students up to play. I’ve worked with all but one of them and they are all terrific thoughtful players. They gave it a good one, but were ultimately a bit stumped by the issue of pitch versus sound/timbre and the problem of constant juxtaposition that Keith expected of them, instead of the kind of listening/interaction required in most improvised music. Keith spent some time helping them to work out the difference with a very honest and supportive assessment. He told them not to listen to each other. “Don’t listen,” he said. “Consider the experience of the room. Play the moment in the room and make the exact sound that needs to be played in this room at that moment” When a couple of students politely challenged him he quite respectfully answered with something of a “well that’s how you might work it out for yourself in your music” and finally a sincere “God Bless with that”.
It was clear throughout the talk that Keith Rowe's aesthetic and methodology is well defined and that it continues to grow. It was also clear that it is not meant in any way to prevent anyone else from discovering his or her own way. As he declared in the opening minutes of his talk “I have no dogma”. I know we all felt quite fortunate to have the chance to learn so much about this great artist and to enjoy the inspiration that his story offers.
Sunday, March 14, 2010
Sei Miguel who plays pocket trumpet, is one of the most interesting improvising musicians on the scene today. He and his wife Fala Mariam who plays alto trombone, and their close associates Cesar Burago on percussion and Rafael Toral on electronics Pedro Lourenco on bass make beautiful music in a near perfect conversational environment. Somehow Miguel has found that space where melody, rhythm, and a delicate balance of sound and silence bridges that gap between what is high art music and what is pure folk music.
Miguel who is Brazilian, lives in Lisbon Portugal. He and Fala Mariam are two of the deepest artists I have ever known. They are committed to making music and making art. Fala Mariam besides being one of the most original voices to play trombone, is a fantastic painter as well. They operate in a kind of familial way with their ensemble and that closeness is obvious in all of their playing. They play with a vocal quality that is beyond anything called microtonal, with them it's just more personal than that.
The title of his new CD on Clean Feed Esfíngico – Suite for a Jazz Combo might seem funny to people who think that a term like Jazz Combo is old or corny. But Miguel is very much committed to the idea that Jazz is still viable and indeed necessary as a platform for his music. Listening to him and performing with him—as I have done on two occasions, makes it easy to understand why that is. Miguel and his tight crew are speaking through their instruments, telling stories to each other and to listeners and always reaching for that rarefied space where music functions on so many levels that it defies description yet still reminds us of our humanity.
To me, any good original music that declares itself to be jazz, actually needs to ignore the tired old jazz dogma that says that good, original music has no place in jazz. Miguel and company play by those terms. They admire depth of intent, pure sound, close interaction and the sense of adventure that makes the great musicians associated with jazz truly beyond any category. Once again, like so many times before, new jazz has emerged in an unexpected place. This time Lisbon is where it's at.