It's not the most obvious marriage of styles. A pair of studio musicians lay down a mesh of found sounds, modified instruments, loops and textures; then free improvisers blow on top. That's what you get on Masses, credited to Spring Heel Jack and the "Blue Series Continuum." Think of it as an all-star improv collective on a train. That train keeps chugging along its track, with some notable electronic scenery, hills and turns along the way, while players from New York's inner circle of "hip" improvisers ply their sounds on top. At times (as on "Medusa's Head," or "Cobra") there's only one "live" player, and it sounds surreally like a solo against a soundtrack. Or to put it bluntly, it becomes a straight-up overdub. (And while Tim Berne isn't one much to use overdubs, check out his studio work on the fine '84 recording with Bill Frisell, Theoretically....)
John Cage was fascinated about the relationship between music and its audience, a relationship he explored in his music as well as his public lectures. The act of creating sound, in Cage's view, is never independent of the way it connects with the listener. In some sense, Masses also dwells on this relationshipbut there's an extra twist. We (the ultimate listeners) get to be voyeurs to the process. The improv players on Masses, truly a remarkable cast, get their chance to listen and respond to evolving compositions by Spring Heel Jack. And then, with Masses in the CD player, we can sit back to hear what happens.
Even with headphone-level attention, the most exciting parts of Masses come from discoveries in the moment: sparks of energy tossed aside as the improvisers charge forward. Spring Heel Jack's role in the whole thing is mostly to elaborate moods or provide a sort of fixed dynamic counterpoint, but the other musicians really bring the concept to life. The pure energy of "Salt," for example, roots itself in the square-wave bluntness of SHJ's sampled chunks of sound; but it flowers in the startling revelations of Evan Parker's soprano saxophone. William Parker handles the bass on four of these tunes, and he's capable of great mischief, just as he's eager to keep the ends tied down. Tim Berne's solo performance on "Medusa's Head" ends up sounding half-man, half-machine as he coaxes surreal noises from the baritone saxophone to go with the dynamic shifts from the composer duo.
Unlike many experiments combining electronics with improvisation, Masses does not feature any live processing or sampling of the jazz performers. The live instruments are all "clean." It's a stark contrastand, because Spring Heel Jack generally does not compose overstatements, it works.
Personnel: Tim Berne: alto and baritone saxophones; Guillermo E. Brown: drums; Roy Campbell: trumpet; Daniel Carter: flute, alto and tenor saxophones; Ed Coxon: violins; Mat Maneri: acoustic and electric viola; Evan Parker: soprano saxophone; William Parker: bass; Matthew Shipp: piano; George Trebar: acoustic and electric bass; John Coxon & Ashley Wales: all other instruments.