Every so often outside provocateurs enter the insular organism of improvised music and shake things up. Several years ago the culprit was Spring Heel Jack. A shared moniker for the British duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales, the 'band' began fostering collaborative connections with British and American improvisers through a series of projects on the Thirsty Ear label. Mixed reactions to the music followed, varying from incredulous head-scratching to enthusiastic praise. Coxon's roots lay in pop production while Wales came out of a classical composition background. The pair initially teamed in the production of dance-oriented drum 'n bass and dub projects. Through a serendipitous evolution they now keep heavy company with venerable free jazz and improv musicians like Wadada Leo Smith, Daniel Carter and Evan Parker.
As a natural outgrowth of their Thirsty Ear endeavors, the newly christened Treader label presents side projects by those players in their ever-expanding circle. Pressed in editions limited to a few hundred copies the first three titles in the series will likely become collector's items in short order. Indicative of their rarefied numbers, the discs come ensconced in pastel colored fold-out cardboard sleeves embossed with a raised gold animal imprints and non-descript lettering. Accompanying information is utilitarian and minimal. Even track titles are left by the wayside, leaving the music free from extraneous connotative influence.
Evan Parker with Birds
One of the most indelible anecdotes about Eric Dolphy involves his afternoons spent practicing with birds in his backyard. Treader's first release immediately conjures parallels to Dolphy's colloquies with his avian neighbors. Curiously, Evan Parker with Birds carries the incongruous faunal insignia of kangaroo. Parker favors mainly soprano, but also slips in a bit of tenor. Coxon and Wales are credited with the inconclusive instrumentation of "soundscapes."? The bird song components borrow from several sources and combine with field recordings of outdoor ambient textures made by Wales at several European sites. Dedicated to Steve Lacy ( Chirps , Parker's FMP duo recording with Lacy, also evinced ornithological qualities), the program opens en media res and stretches out over four tracks. The first one evolves over aqueous trickling backdrop of treated clucks, twitters and caws that occasionally overlays the sonorities of a burbling jungle stream over the panoply of bird speech. Parker traces gelid melodic lines on top that carry vaguely Arabic undercurrents, etching his tone occasionally with grainy rasps and also incorporating overdubbing. Soon familiar multiphonics tumble forth in a self-replenishing tide of circular breathing bracketed by the recurring croak of what sounds like a lonely macaw.
The second track shaves away the ambient filters leaving Parker in a more purely 'acoustic' setting with his winged partners. Quavering and tongued breath sounds siphon through pursed embouchure and reed, flittering in contemplative conversation with beak-born counterparts. Key pad patter and puckered percussive pops also punctuate the ersatz discourse. Electronics return for the third piece, eclipsing Parker and threading what sounds like the dull clack of pinball flippers and muted video game explosions into the lattice of doctored bird song. The fit between variously recorded elements is surprisingly snug. Parker unpacks his tenor on the disc's final piece and blows plaintive dry gusts against canvas of crinkled antique LP static and humming machinery sounds. After another ambient section of looped church bells he returns to limpid soprano for a haunting Giuffresque close. All told it's an oddly disarming and diffusive excursion, one that occupies an instantly unprecedented slot in Parker's already capacious discography.
Evan Parker, Mark Sanders and John Coxon
Trio with Interludes
Coxon and Wales hold positions of more obvious prominence on Trio with Interludes. Here they join Parker and British percussionist Mark Sanders for a series of largely improvised studio encounters. Coxon relies on a small arsenal of keyboards, piano, harpsichord, National Trojan guitar and riveted tambour, while Wales occupies himself on piano, bass drum, the aforementioned tambour and flannel. The approach and feel align more closely with the pair's various Thirsty Ear outings ( Live and Sweetness of the Water ). While neither is in the same improvisatory league as the acoustic musicians each still crafts irreverent and often humorous contributions. This time out the disc sleeve totem is a walrus and Parker leaves his soprano case latched shut. Broken into thirteen tracks, the program alternates between longer combative episodes and the shorter titular "interludes"? for pianos and percussion that serve as the segueing cartilage between them.
Parker and Sanders put up with the knob twiddling, button pushing, string-torquing and instrument-abusing antics of their partners. In the opening minutes the Parker blows saucy tenor into the maw of gurgling, flanging electronics while the Sanders kicks up a racket on his kit. Unexpectedly the bottom drops out and a cascade of sci-fi detritus soaks and threatens to subsume Parker's gnarled fractious lines. Shaking the synthetic suds from his mustache and beard, Parker hunkers down and soldiers on. Sanders sounds more at home, his bumptious, detail-oriented style meshing with the monkeyshine method of music making that Coxon and Wales appear to favor. Later Parker engages in protracted concert with Coxon's particularly loquacious Roland MKS 80 console, man-driven reed versus man-driven machine with the winner a draw. Sander's sticks carve a cavalier shadow beat as commentary and have their turn toward the disc's close in a spasmodic exchange that throws off its fair share of funk. Not all of it works and the instrument-switching becomes a bit exasperating in spots. But all four men take pains to ensure that the interplay doesn't wallow in needlessly prolix wankery. Repeat spins of this disc will likely depend on the listener's affinity for the disorienting sensory horseplay of carnival funhouses.
Swallow Chase presents a solo recital by Sanders. Coxon and Wales' roles scale back to producers' status and the purely acoustic milieu presents an ideal telescope on the drummer's itemized technique. The church mouse on the disc's cover serves as an anthropomorphic analog to the mood of much of the music, quiet, delicate and fastidious in conception. On many of his previous gigs, particularly in the company of Evan Parker and bassist John Edwards, Sanders has favored an aggressive style that can border on the stentorian in terms of volume and impact. Not so here. This is a different, more subdued Sanders than the player on The Ayes Have It or The Two Seasons , more in synch with his approach on Nisus Duets (all three on Emanem). A quiet, contemplative cast drapes much of the program; one piece even incorporates snatches of silence for nearly half its duration as ballast for Sanders' micro-level stick movements. Another (the last track) sounds like the disc is spinning at half speed and slowly winding down. Attenuating his sticks to the studio surroundings, Sanders' also exploits the natural acoustics of the room.
Even with the emphasis on gradual development there is still a flurry of things going on and also a few spots where Sanders deploys some daunting muscle. Many of the pieces employ tempered cymbal (bowed and struck) and thudding tom play often favoring timbral exploration over rhythmic push, but still undergirding the action with an arching forward momentum. Peripheral implements like gongs and objects placed on skins enter the palette regularly. He also involves himself in various gamelan and East Asian percussion oriented asides. Through it all an extraordinary dexterity, both mental and kinesthetic comes into play. The disc is surprisingly frugal: nine untitled cuts float by in just under forty-two minutes. Its economical overall length gives each of the highly textured episodes welcome cohesion, an implicit sense of impetus and ending. The tactic also successfully safeguards against the intrusion of filler. Of the three inaugural Treaders this one takes the prize by a narrow margin, but each holds its charms. Coxon is reportedly at work on the second series of three. The current clutch already shows his efforts as quite removed from that of the typical boutique label.
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