For the modern-day jazzman, ascertaining the mix of criteria summing up to success is becoming increasingly difficult. Should units sold, the profile of the gig, the numbers in attendance at performances, the quality and global reach of distribution of the recordings or, (perish the thought) the quality of the reviews received be the inches in yardstick? Shouldn't it rather be measured in the mastery of the instrument and the methodologies of presenting and delivering it to the masses,including the studio, and now, computers; the number of styles delved into and comfort with them, the number and quality of interactions with other musicians, the willingness to give the music to others, to the point of giving it away, and the willingness to give oneself to the moment- to the music? By all of the latter criteria, Jonathan Townes, as well as the cast he surrounds himself with here, may be adjudged a resounding success.
The thirty year-old leader of the date is a practicing Yogi who resides in Brooklyn by way of Frederick, Maryland. He's a guitarist who at one point became so enamored of John Coltrane and grew so frustrated by the inadequacy of pulling off his phrasing, that while enrolled at Berklee for guitar, took up saxophone, studying with ex-Jazz Messenger Billy Pierce. Jonathan already has three discs available under his own name and a fourth (theSun's Anvilproject) featuring him as chief composer and co-producer. He's dubbed his music "Liquid Stream of Electric Consciousness" to wit: "It's not really jazz, and it's not really anything else. It sounds like other things, but no word or phrase exists to fit the music. The music is liquid. It flows. It fits to the vibe of the moment. It's not confined to a single space, time, or temperament. The music is electric. More than electric instruments. The music has a vibrant pulse. The music continually moves from one moment to the next." The bassist on the date is Neal Fountain, a virtual unknown from Macon, Georgia, who logged serious time, at twenty years old, as the sole white member of a local unit of semi-retired black funk masters; former members of Otis Redding's and James Brown's bands. He is so enraptured and enamored by the sound of the organ that, for one, he plays it marvelously, but more pertinently here, can imitate it flawlessly on a six string electric bass, armed with no effects save a chorus ensemble. He has performed trio dates on guitar, playing nothing but the music of his idol Bill Frisell, and is a former member of southern visionary Colonel Bruce Hampton's Zappa-cum-Allman Fiji Mariners. He's gigged regularly with drummer Jeff Sipe (aka Apartment Q-258) and toured with his Apartment Projects. Neal's band, Megaphone Man (www.archive-music.com), with whom he has recently taken to getting a huge, Haden-like, majestic howl out of the DeArmond, rubber stringed, ukelele-sized Asbory bass, has been called an Athens-based Sex Mob (see: http://www.52ndstreet.com/reviews/mainstream/six_on_edge.html). Neal is the only bassist I know of who could literally roll out of bed into a gig with Maceo Parker or Carla Bley. And while there are no expert critics regarding music in general and jazz in particular, I'll cop to this -if I know anything it's electric bass-and,as they say in the chat groups, IMHOP he's in the top handful of electric bassists on the face of the planet. Danny Sadownick and Andy Sanesi have quite simply, played percussion and drums for everybody (haven't they?)and at this point, make up a locked and formidable rhythm team. With keyboardist Alex Lacamoire, they've logged substantial time with John Zorn. Back to Townes and Fountain-both have stunning ears for funk, jazz, avant and far Eastern musics and have grown tired of composing in the standard fashion. Jonathan has his toes dipped in these styles as well as the pools of bop,jungle, noise-as-music, acid-rock, blues, and ECMatospheric jazz excursions. For this current set, he could have written tunes in any number of styles with heads, bridges, turnarounds, verses, choruses and endings, as he has done in the past. Instead, he opted to get like-minded friends together for a couple of nights in the studio, and skip the writing step because it'd be easier to get right to the music, rejecting composition for surprise and playing over changes for channeling. Guess what? He came out on the other end, having done all the studio work himself, including mastering, with nothing less than a double-disc instrumental concept record. He will put it out there, make it downloadable, press some copies (which will undoubtedly be underpriced to comparable material), and very likely give it to whomsoever shows some interest, or at least, asks nice. Jonathan's very charitable with the song giveaways at his website (www.giglaeoplexis.com). If I deliver no other message here than this, however, it will be worthwhile: Listening to a tune here or there from this set will not give an adequate picture of what is accomplished by the recording effort. It should be digested as a whole. With this collection, we've got the same band on all the tunes, either complemented or not by keyboardist Lacamoire. Dark kicks off the proceedings in spare, grasping fashion, with Townes soloing- no, let's call it creating a melody- over electric piano swells, a whole note bass line and cymbals. Lacamoire interjects ultra-tasteful bluesy comping on electric piano that turns into a solo turn full of tiers of harmony and space, while Jonathan scrapes metallic underneath. As guitar returns to the lead voice, the harmony remains dark, as Lacamoire manages to squirt in sweet chords over the top. A skittering series of guitar phrases takes the tune to its end, and Turtle Shell , just a great little funk skirmish, kicks in. Ba-da, ba-da, ba-da-doo-bop, ba-dap-dap - uhhh! And yes, right there, they've gotcha! Sadownick locks in his tambourine with Sanesi's kick and Fountain's bass line- and you're up outta whatever chair you were in before you even catch the subtlety of what's gotten you there. See, that's Neal comping the chords on bass and Jonathan wackin' the bass line on guitar. Tricky! And really only fully discernible when Neal finishes up his restrained wicked little funk solo, and picks up exactly the bass line so that Jonathan can do his brand of acid-funk riffing, deploying two very distinct tones along the way. Jonathan's solo is liquid sounding without being cluttered with too many notes and has a relaxed, behind the beat quality to it that propulses the tune forward. In an unexpected move, Jonathan starts the bass line up again,letting Neal play chordal accents in different spots, and giving him another crack at a longer, seriously f-honky solo. The listener can feel for themselves how naturally and effortlessly Neal is tossing this stuff off, like a lead guitarist in a R&B band, where he did so much time, as only a handful of bassists could. When Neal comes back in with the chords, it's with his trademark B-3 tone, as the tune fades. Sphere of the Final kicks the pulse down a few notches with a swaying arpeggiation transitioning into a sad, single-note folk ballad improvisation by Townes. Time picks us back up again with Sadownick's congas and Townes' bullfighter-funk scratch rhythm guitar. Fountain's bass line comes in, seemingly pulling the cape up for the band to come through, but the bull unexpectedly retreats to a minimalistic percussion landscape where tonal painting is encouraged. The experimentation continues until Townes decides to arpeggiate some Spanish chords, malaguena-style, over the spatial backdrop and let the tune cease to exist. Disc two's Thrust features a live bass loop, which for its two second repeating durations manages to incorporate the entire range of Neal's six strings, over which Jonathan voices a playfully raga-ish improvisation, using fuzzed out chordal washes as a pedal off of which to play. This segues into perhaps the set's most comfortable progression to the ears-a bluesy funk thing featuring Neal on B-3 bass. Think lots-o-Blue'n'Green smoke (you get the vibe without dropping any trademarked names), only with sustained guitar. About two minutes in, you realize Jonathan has been improvising/soloing the whole time- which indicates the level of melodicism he's got going. It picks up a bit in intensity the real solo section, but there's a seamless handoff in its middle, when Jonathan takes over the funky bass line and yields to Fountain's lyrical mastery. Literally, the only distinguishing features between the bass and guitar solos, in terms of the interchanging lead and support roles, is the shift in tones. If anything, Neal plays more notes than Townes when soloing and Townes plays fewer notes than Neal when playing bass lines. At the 8:30 mark, three notes of Townes' solo are arpeggiated and harmonicized, and the funk riff goes atmospheric, with Sadownick tastefully employing his percussion arsenal. It shifts into a reggae percussion beat, but the kind of airy (perhaps this is why the title is Vapor Trailor) sounding groove Steve Khan, Anthony Jackson and Steve Jordan did so well in their Eyewitness period. It ends with a mainstream jazz section, whereby Neal tastefully displays his incredible walking chops, while Townes shows us how effective his brand of sustainable minimalism can be- capping a 15 minute melodic, improvisational, rhythmically shifting gem. Upon hearing North Sea is where I came to the edge of my chair as I digested this offering. It's no lie that this set was improvised, but this tune sounds as if it must have been composed. It sounds as if the composer was armed with a grant from some Scandinavian Arts Council chartering him to make tribute to the epic tapestries of the ECM label, without somehow contriving a great rip-off. It's accomplished here- tres Terje. Lacamoire's contribution here on keyboards and sustaining electric piano is invaluable, while Jonathan's tone at the end hints of the acid space experiments of a bygone American tradition. Little Leslie ornaments a funk riff with the soundtrack of a Moroccan market - giving the song a palpable sense of acceleration. Run Leslie Run! This begins the motif of the ending tunes, which go East. On The Caterpillar's Opium Pipe , Townes starts off with a bit of a fuzz-muted raga motif and Fountain is given ample space to solo, in a Middle Eastern vein, over what is basically a drone and a pulse. Neal employs open strings, double stops, and octaves, which in particular, are voiced with a clarity of tone and harmonic tastefulness I have yet to hear from another bassist. At the four minute mark the tune propulses forward into a sprint through the desert, over which Jonathan employs legato lines and triads for decorative shards of harmony. There is a brilliant moment near the end of the tune, during Jonathan's solo, where Neal starts laying down three note chords over his own bass line (using two-handed technique). A theme emerges, and the solo takes a detour- Jonathan does not stop playing, but pauses- you can feel it- his refusal to go in the conventional direction becomes corporeal to the listener- and plays notes with phrasing that are real stretches-as delightfully out as he can go without being just, for lack of a better word, mistakes. It's brilliant because it's a demonstration of commitment- musical commitment- to doing something different, to doing something true- to putting the map away or throwing it out the window and finding a new destination! It's that spirit that permeates this recording. And as Visnu finishes things up, beginning with a relaxed Indian intensity that burns ever more searingly incandescent as it goes on, concluding with punctuation provided by Townes' deep metallic creaking against a silence, you can't help noticing it. So,enjoy this current offering while keeping a watchful eye out for something even more far out-music conceptualized, yet not written, to the point of fashioning it's own sub-genre. It's highly recommended, but don't forget- This is Secret Music! Visit Jonathan Townes' website
Track Listing: DISC 1: Dark, Turtle Shell, Sphere of the Final, Star Music DISC 2: Thrust, Vapor Trailor, Northsea, Little Leslie, The Caterpillar?s Opium Pipe, Visnu Total running time: 85 minutes
Phil wishes he was a musician (well, he is one, but he wishes he were a good one) but he's not frustrated by it. He's frustrated with a lot of other aspects of the so-called biz. Therefore, he's excited by independently released jazz.