Most enthusiasts of creative improvised music are familiar with Kevin Whitehead. His extensive and influential work as music critic, author and radio host has caulked numerous important gaps in the music’s history and his book New Dutch Swing
remains the definitive document of Holland’s jazz scene. Unbeknownst to many however he’s also a musician, one who formed the experimental band Starship Beer with several friends in college. Inspired by the myriad of musical forms and movements swirling around them from improvisational rock to free jazz, they decided to toss their hats into the ring. Other accomplished writers have attempted similar forays into the music they write so eloquently about- Walter Horn and Unheard Music Series curator John Corbett are two that spring immediately to mind. But like the projects of its peers the music of Starship Beer ends up being a flawed and at times overly self-indulgent enterprise.
Collected onto this single one-stop disc is the bulk of the band’s legacy, a self-produced LP and several assorted tape fragments. Digested together they are a hodgepodge of improvisations and ideas that ultimately seems more like a collaborative game of ‘let’s see if the shoe fits’ than anything meant seriously for mass consumption. But as Whitehead points out in his liners (which truth be told, are often more engaging than the music he’s commenting on) bits and pieces of the group’s work filtered into some unexpected places with unexpected results. One tale about the track “Chris, the Nasty Boy” eventually providing fodder for a local Right-Wing politician’s ire is especially amusing.
Mingin, O’Brien and Whitehead, the band’s three core players, exhibit skill with their respective instruments, but their creations routinely have the cast of music designed more for the creators’ satisfaction than the listeners’. The result is a collection of concept pieces that start to grate upon the nerves. From the opening cut, which revolves around a piebald mantra howled by O’Brien over a curdling electric bass and fuzzed out guitar the group takes on the dimensions of a free jazz, minimalist garage band. A communal philosophy when it comes to instruments allows each player to pick form the collective clutch depending upon his or her desired role of the moment. This creates a consistent ambience of unpredictability, but unfortunately the choices made rarely result in finished product worthy of the mystery. “Ghosts of Owls” is an easy example where the fluctuating vocal improvisations of Mingin and Whitehead whirl around the central fluttering vocalese of O’Brien without much coherence. Other pieces like “Air or Wind” and “Cavalcade of Stars” have an obvious rock bent with Mingin’s distorted guitar scratching out weighty riffs above rumbling, heavily fractured rhythms. The grand finale “Tiffany Lounge” takes things to a logical extreme with all of the players cycling through a stack of instruments without much to show for it at the end. The decision to release this material commercially is a curious one, but odds are there’s an audience out there somewhere ready and willing to receive it.
Unheard Music on the web: http://www.atavistic.com
Personnel: Wes Mingin- electric guitar, piano, alto saxophone, voices, alto recorder, melodica, Pat O