Crushed Smoke is difficult but rewarding. Matt Turner speaks with his own language on the cello, and it's comprised of an elaborate vocabulary, grammar and syntax. He's asking us to listen to a handful of meditations in that private language on Crushed Smoke. This recording (an addition to his solo discography) sets the cellist free, and he takes an extended voyage through a series of unpredictable, often mystifying explorations. The titles help with a couple: "Koto Caress," for example, is a wispy, quiet tune. But as for most, you better be prepared to sit back and pay attention if you want to get what Turner has to say.
The major looming question in the face of something this complex is whether it's coherent or incoherent. (ie: the music is brilliant, or it's random and stupid.) Rest assured that Crushed Smoke is both coherent and visionary. Tunes like "Prarie Lament" give a brief hint at the straight-ahead possibilities of the tuneful cellist (with an edge: enough overtones to ensure that you know he's chafing at the bit). We hear something here that Ayler applied in his work: altered techniques, when used sparingly, can make even the most commonplace sound ethereal. Simple (throaty) bowed tones pursue a minor theme of melancholy and release; increasingly common double stops and trebly trips add energy as the tune progresses.
When Turner goes electric, as he does on two of these 15 tunes, it's not to take advantage of effects, overdubs, or processing... he's simply interested at the tones which are only possible through electronic amplification. The aptly named "Tap" goes after tuned percussion (yes, the cello works great for this, if only you get the right pickup). Turner renders his pointillist stabs on "Tap" with two concepts in mind: polyrhythm and griot melodicism. If you're interested in spending five minutes listening to solo cello tapping, you'll get a lot out of Crushed Smoke.
In much the same way Anthony Braxton was labeled a freak until people began to pick up on the elaborate ideas and structures behind his work, Turner will face an uphill battle for the true recognition he deserves. Both of these artists had already done pretty mind-blowing solo records before they were awarded the stature they deserve.
If Crushed Smoke doesn't speak your language (ie: if you can't figure out what Turner's trying to communicate here), I'd suggest a few trips back through the progressive arm of free improvisation until you get it right. This record is truly brilliant. (If the dynamic range were a bit narrower, it would be a masterpiece. Unfortunately you do need to attend to the volume knob in places, and that's always a drag.)
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Personnel: Matt Turner: cello, Yamaha electric cello.