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While the idea is consistently maligned by the improvised music cognoscenti, it is nevertheless a fact that the heaps of praise and credibility given improvised music by members of Sonic Youth – specifically guitarists Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo – have helped provide free jazz the boost in popularity that it enjoys today. Moore is of course the major player in this realm, having written much on the subject, but Ranaldo has for years quietly built a catalog of consistently wigged solo work, as well as cutting a number of sessions with free jazz drummer William Hooker. For this, the fourth document of collaborations between Hooker and Ranaldo, they are joined by electronic musician Roger Miller in one 50-minute group improvisation.
Neither Ranaldo nor Moore have ever particularly engaged anything close to free jazz improvisation in their own playing (unless, that is, you count Moore's often spastic appropriation of late-period Ray Russell pyrotechnics as "jazz"); rather, their approach stems from the "noise" end of the spectrum, epitomized by the early '80s work of guitarist-composers Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham.
Ranaldo's solo efforts typically constitute drones and looped feedback, over which he sometimes recites poetry or adds further guitar effects. In previous sets with Willam Hooker, such as Envisioning , the two players seemed to counteract one another, Ranaldo's subtle, layered minimalist approach having little to do with the bombastic bashing that tends to characterize Hooker's playing.
From the get-go Monsoon falls once again into this disparity. Ranaldo and Miller are both highly textural players, and Hooker once again sees fit to lay in with uninventive polyrhythms that have almost nothing to do with the soundscape created by various types of feedback. This web of sound, however, does achieve enough foreground prominence that one can overlook Hooker's relatively isolated methods and concentrate on textural issues.
There is an ebb and flow in the trio's playing, passages of intensity that rise from the relaxed-yet-dissonant flow, giving this set an extra edge over similar efforts. Though this is a live recording, it's also mixed so that everything the group does is audible but the audience remains undetected. Of course, a single fifty-minute improvisation is a difficult beast, and it is a tall order to maintain a sense of direction throughout. Monsoon is unfortunately no exception; at about the 35-minute mark, the doldrums appear and last for a good ten minutes before the trio get rather excited again towards the end.
If you're already predisposed to improvised free-rock and noise, this should be an enjoyable listen. Monsoon certainly eclipses previous duo efforts with William Hooker in terms of variety and interest – and in terms of quality, it far exceeds some of Thurston Moore's free music experiments. Of course, if you're expecting the usual free jazz or anything like it, this probably won't fit the bill in the least.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.