Pictures Without Borders

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White's gut-level vocal cuts through the music but remains part of the overall picture, like the howl of a distant, unseen freight train passing through the scenery of the night.
Every so often it can be satisfying to set up before one's self a challenge and then to knock it down. Such as trying to find, for example, the jazz threads in sounds cut from different musical cloth.

Sons of Armageddon
The Softest Touch
Magic Pony Records

Colorful, complicated and compelling, this topped my list of the best releases from 2004.

SOA is comprised of five members but employs musical weaponry far from your standard jazz quintet: Lewis "Glewlio" Keller on turntables, laptop, theremin, synthesizers, melodica, and guitar; Mark Prather on percussion, samples, and machines; Cameron "Slammy" Thompson on samples and drums; Tim Hochman on bass and post-production; with Kirk Knuffke on trumpet the main solo voice, plus alto saxman Dav Poli Hoof guesting on "Shambles Factory." A different shape of band for the different shape of jazz things to come.

Knuffke's trumpet solos and the trippy, thick psychedelic stew from which they bubble have led some press to hype The Softest Touch as a mythical post-millennial collaboration between the late Miles Davis and bassist / producer Bill Laswell. "A Thousand Kisses Deep" sure sounds like Laswell dub, as does "E. S. Smothered," which stitches in colorful electronic patches where Laswell usually employs Indian, Asian or African percussion instead.

The comparison to Davis flatters Knuffke but not by too much. Mark Isham is probably closer. He sure knows how to make a cinematic and dramatic entrance - floating his first suspended notes over the squall and clamor of "Hoels," then precision dive-bombing with Hochman's rumbling bass line to swarm the beat in a machine-gun flurry of notes in its closing. As for the band, SOA describes their sound as "post-apocalyptic electro-jazz for the pre-apocalyptic listener." It's as close as anything else, so why the hell not?

The centerpiece "Dubya" begins in atmosphere and percussion. Then bass pads out from under its cover with loping powerful strides as trumpet rides atop, surveying the scene like the king of the jungle with a hungry omniscient eye and cutting back in after the break to ferociously flay the beat. Occasional bits of New Orleans snare drumming gives Knuffke a more fluid ride in "The Diddler," at least until the bass solo mutates into jarring, h-u-g-e electronic four / four beats pockmarked with sound snippets to close.

MAN, is this stuff hard to describe!

If I managed or owned a retail shop, I'd keep three copies on hand so that folks could find The Softest Touch under Modern Rock (from its attitude), Electronic Music (from its instrumentation), or Jazz (from its trumpet solos). It seems to belong and to not belong in each group. That's sort of why this is my pick for "Best of 2004" - not only because of its music but because of what its music and music like it foreshadows for music in the future. It seems almost impossible to say that this is or is not a Jazz record.


Choing Drolma and Steve Tibbetts
Selwa
Six Degrees

Like Cho, the first collaboration between Drolma and Tibbetts (in 1997), Selwa honors the sacred music of north and south Asia and delivers a profound example of the modern music world as a global village. It showcases recordings of Buddhist nun Ch?g Drolma made by percussionist Marc Anderson and guitarist Steve Tibbetts, both from Minnesota, at a Tibetan Buddhist enclave in the Himalayan country of Nepal. Anderson and Tibbetts returned to Minnesota to huddle with Lee Townsend, producer for such star guitarists as Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Charlie Hunter, John Abercrombie, and the guitar ensemble T.J. Kirk. The three then wove enchanted percussion and guitar instrumentation around Drolma's chanted prayers and supplications.

Townsend's help proves no small touch. His multi-tracking the vocals in "Song of Realization" makes them seem to intertwine, to strive onward and upward like mythical vines growing toward the sun. Resonant echo on her voice makes "Yumchen Tukar" feel even more reverent.

Selwa is ethereal, evocative, and breathtakingly beautiful. Tibbetts and Anderson seem to intuitively understand how to accompany Drolma's voice, building in "Paiden Rangjung," for example, a mountain of percussion and guitar from which Drolma's vocal steps right off the crest into pure nothing.

The spacious instrumental introduction to "Mandala Offering," where guitar waterfalls splash against thumping percussion and shimmering cymbals - appearing, disappearing, then reappearing - is beautiful and inscrutable, pastoral Pat Metheny taken to the abstract. Tibbetts and Anderson also somehow intuit the ebbs and flows of the centerpiece "Song of Realization." Drolma completely dissolves herself in this hymn to the point where you cannot distinguish between singer and song.


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