|Meniscus Roundup #01 : Matt Turner + Gino Robair
Meniscus is a new independent label that, judging from these first
two releases, intends to cut an all-inclusive path through the mass
of improvised music by presenting sessions that distinctively blur
the lines between jazz, 20th century classical music, electronica,
and possibly any other experimental musical forms that happen to be
in the way. With an emphasis on small group settings and a seeming
desire to eliminate the walls of provinciality that hinder much of
today's improvised music, these two discs offer fresh insights into
the current sound worlds of two lesser-known artists.
The Mouse That Roared is a collection of improvisations for
solo cello that thankfully avoid the monotonous tree-felling that
results from too many solo string instrument outings, instead presenting
short, well-conceived and highly-focused pieces. "Improv 1" opens
the disc on an ominous note that might be at home on the soundtrack
to an action-adventure movie sequence - tension being the key ingredient.
"Improv 2" finds Turner in a more abstract mode, a sort of bowed acupuncture
that tips the cello to its sonic boundaries and builds clouds of sawdust
from a poker-faced harmonic drone. "Improv 3" and "Improv 4" lend
a study in polar opposites, as "3" centers on noteless rhythmic configurations
enacted by the slapping of hands and bow while "4" embodies a fetish
for the note, in an exploration of the harmonic minor scale (or a
variant thereof) with sliding registers and Arabic implications. "Improv
5" is by far the jazziest piece on the disc, a cascading tone-flow
in swinging time that simultaneously sustains rhythm, melody and harmony
in ambitious strides toward the cello's highest regions. On the other
hand, "Improv 6" negates the rhythmic nucleus of "5" via the use of
faintly vocalized buzzing harmonics in a more floating sense of time,
eventually charging into alternated bass dives and multi-toned shrieks.
To close the disc, "Improv 7" captures a melancholy descent into melodic
abyss—a radiating conclusion to a fine set of performances.
Buddy Systems presents a definite contrast with Turner's—a
pastiche of duo and trio tracks that span nearly three years of recording
activity with a plethora of the percussionist's musical "buddies".
Although the cast of collaborators varies throughout the disc, three
distinct trends can be detected amongst the pieces: the electronic,
the classical and the jazz improv. Among the electronically minded
pieces are the disc's most thought-provoking and most tedious music.
The collaborations with Otomo Yoshihide offer challenging insights
into electronic music production—"Inappropriations" captures
a cut-and-pasted symphonic blur, sounding as if the duo had chewed
up an entire century's worth of sound and spit it out, while "Lead
Me Lord" concocts a hulking futuristic mass of sonority, with belt-sander
electronics counteracted by snippets of sampled country blues (which
come off almost more jolting than the abrasive electronics). However,
the pairings with Tim Perkis are a little more difficult—"Integument",
"Integumentation" and "Tangle" seem to get a bit lost in the sheer
experimentation of it all, as bursts of static, sonar blips, and gurgling
abstractions meander onward with no certain sense of direction (though
saxophonist John Butcher's cloak-and-dagger presence on "Tangle" helps
to solidify the proceedings). Of the classically oriented pieces,
the duos with violinist LaDonna Smith (four tracks in all) have the
most impact, especially in the manic atonality of "Trnava" and the
unhinged violin-theremin dialogue of "Sklarking". Of the jazz improv
tracks, it's "Reckless & Sinful Extravagance" (where Dan Plonsey's
clarinet pierces through the center of Robair's circular beat with
hyperactive overblowing and dangerous vibrato) and "Tonal Vibrations"
(where Oluyemi Thomas' snake-charming soprano and Robair's shimmering
cymbals set the tone, only to be inverted by Thomas' switch to alto
clarinet in a deeper and more blues-informed approach that builds
to a pounding climax) that stand out as definite highlights, though
the warped diatribe of the Splatter Trio's "Adytum" certainly holds
its contextual own.
Though not advised for the weak of heart, both of these discs seize
some highly creative currents in contemporary improvised music that
have fallen outside of the spotlight of the music's recent recognition.
And with upcoming releases planned from Matthew Goodheart and John
Butcher, Meniscus looks to be continuing the standard it's set with
these first two outings—keep those eyes and ears open.