Tom Heasley: A Passage to Sound


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"The sampler I use doesn't just pile up tracks discreetly. It slices, dices, mixes, chops, purees and morphs what you put into it."
Tom Heasley Tom Heasley

A Passage to Sound

Full Bleed Music


Tom Heasley is sensitive about the way that people label his music—very sensitive in fact. We've been in regular contact ever since I first listened to Passages (Full Bleed Music, 2007), a disc filled to the brim with spacey, sensuous and eruptive duets between his 'Ambient Tuba' and Toss Panos' drums. But I'm unsure whether this music marks him as an intuitive composer or a meticulously focused improviser. To Heasley, however, his pieces require a different angle altogether: "My point, if I have one, is that my work kind of stretches the idea of composition, improvisation and everything in-between," he says, "I think I might have mentioned a certain painting having been painted in about an hour. Let's call it a masterpiece for arguments sake. Does anyone get involved with questions of whether it was 'composed' or 'improvised,' or how long it took to paint?" He does have a point and still I am dying to find out how long it took to arrive at the sonic paintings of Passages.

The reason for my curiosity is the fact that the album effectively blurs the border between music and experimental electronics, between concentrated development and ambient drift, between melody, harmony and timbre. In its radical uniqueness, it is not unlike some of Jan Garbarek's organ/saxophone experiments—in terms of aesthetics, not sound, that is. One of the reasons behind this multi-polarity are the different backgrounds of these two musicians: Toss Panos has performed with Dweezil Zappa, Andy Summers and the Mike Landau Trio, while Heasley has developed an idiosyncratic looping style for his tuba after years of playing in school bands and orchestras. No wonder, then, as the press release points out, that it has been called "the new drum'n'bass" by one listener and confused for an ECM album by another.

"Stuart Dempster's In The Great Abbey Of Clement VI (New Albion, 1987) was a huge inspiration to me as a young brass player aspiring to be a soloist," Heasley points out in reference to his early influences. "A little later, Jon Hassell's trumpet processing, Fripp & Eno's Evening Star (EG, 1975) and Harold Budd & Brian Eno's Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror (EG, 1980) became vastly influential. But then so was Charlie Parker (I transcribed one of his solos and played it with the college jazz band) and Joni Mitchell and Yes... Chick Corea and Leonard Cohen and so many, many others over the years." It wasn't until the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he discovered the first album of Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening Band (which mainly focused on the potential of sonic resonance) that Heasley started to move in a different direction.

What Heasley did on the three albums preceding Passages was to send his tuba through an array of stomp boxes and effect processors, using it to lay down warm, pneumatically-cushioned and yet mysterious soundscapes of up to three quarters of an hour's length. It is a recognizable style, which relies as much on repetition as it does on subtle variation: "Nothing I begin with is the same for long once it gets going in the looper," Heasley says, "The sampler I use doesn't just pile up tracks discreetly. It slices, dices, mixes, chops, purees and morphs what you put into it." The media and audiences are extremely appreciative—especially at his many live performances, which bring out the physical and (as he puts it) "visceral" side of his style.

Integrating percussive elements into his slow-moving textures was certainly not a conscious plan when preparing for his fourth full-length, as Heasley points out: "I phoned Toss about using his studio, when I was ready to do some recordings for Passages. He asked me if I wanted some drums. I said I hadn't been thinking of it, but he talked me into giving it a try." A try, which worked out well for both sides, as it turned out: "Toss wrote me after the sessions and thanked me for bringing out an entirely different side of him."

In contact with the deep sonorities of the tuba, Panos bridges the divide between groove-oriented shuffles and color-oriented, almost synaesthetical drumming. Heasley, too, applied some discreet changes to his own performance: "Not a lot of live overdubbing occurred during the recording of Passages and none at all after the fact. I deliberately kept my tuba loops simpler, starker, and more rhythmic, sometimes setting up a framework for Toss' drums, and sometimes vice versa."

The result is an album with a nervous tension, a state of constant alertness as to the next breath of air and the next stroke of the brush. It is a work, which is 'jazz' rather in approach and gesture than it is in execution, but one in which fans will be able to find many of the treats which made them fall in love with the genre in the first place. It is also cool and progressive attitude, ambivalent toward expectations and with an exciting sense that anything is possible.

After some pondering, Heasley does find a way of summing up his intentions and his musical coordinates in a simple and clear definition: "It is the sound that matters. And the quality of that sound. I like ASCAPs definition of a composer, as 'the creator of a work, etc.'—no mention of whether it was labored over for fifty years or if it came to one in a dream, or if it was written down."

It is a futile endeavor anyway. Passages has been influenced by decades of work, by endless concerts, by his dialogue with an equally idiosyncratic partner and by a stream of constantly changing influences. Which of these proved to be the deciding factor could never be answered in a fully satisfying way.

Track listing: Different Worlds; 98% Pure; Elegy for Philip Berrigan; Zephyr; Cliffs of Moher.

Personnel: Tom Heasley: Tuba; Toss Panos: drums.

Track Listing: Different Worlds; 98% Pure; Elegy for Philip Berrigan; Zephyr; Cliffs of Moher.

Personnel: Tom Heasley: Tuba; Toss Panos: drums.

Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Full Bleed Music | Style: Fringes of Jazz


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