|Meniscus Roundup #02 : Matthew Goodheart + John Butcher
After firmly establishing its place as a notable new independent label
with last summer's releases by Gino Robair and Matt Turner, the Minneapolis-based
Meniscus imprint serves up two new recordings that further its commitment
to improvisatory minimalism and intimacy. Not content to simply nudge
the proverbial envelope, both discs literally shove the boundaries
of improvised music to their breaking points with somewhat logical
results—namely, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't.
many seem to be content with writing Goodheart off as another Cecil
Taylor clone, his solo work on Songs From The Time Of Great Questioning
proves that the situation is much more complex. Although many of his
structural devices certainly retain a Taylor-esque flavor, the technical
aspects of Goodheart's playing suggest a pianist who has obviously
studied Taylor's work and absorbed the most relevant tenets for use
as a point of departure for his own distinct keyboard explorations.
The first two tracks do have a certain CT echo to them, as seen in
the hinted-at chord progression that introduces "Sparks from the Ancient
Sea" and the spacious anticipation of "Structure for Piano No. 2",
but the rest of the disc highlights the strides Goodheart has made
in his own development. "Can One Letter 'Om'? (for Ornette Coleman)"
offers a brilliant translation of its dedicatee's edgy pulse and discrepant
tonality to the piano with a succession of frazzled bluesy runs and
intermittent stops; the slightly more classically oriented "Variations
on a Theme by Alvin Curran" solidifies raging clusters of sound from
distended origins while momentary swings sneak out from the frenetic
discourse; and "Shaker Melody" explores the piano's innards with rhythmic
purpose and well-conceived abstraction, only to finally reveal the
melody in a hazy conclusion.
Music On Seven Occasions explores even more adventurous territory
and, as might be predicted, comes up with a less desirable outcome.
As a saxophonist who nearly embodies the form vs. content debate in
his adherence to displays of postmodern technical prowess (tongue-slapping,
split tones, etc.), Butcher offers a series of duets with various
collaborators recorded over a two-year period that more often than
not emphasize technical virtuosity over musical communication. The
three pieces that match Butcher with pianist Veryan Weston come the
closest to breaking this mold—especially "Sea They Think They
Hear", in which Butcher's opening curdled shrieks digress to a stuttered
dialogue, and the more introspective "Gil Thread Dream", where the
virtual storm brewed between the two eventually breaks into an intensified
squall of blistering harmonics. The duets with Gino Robair that open
the disc almost achieve a similar end but ultimately result in a sort
of musical tease—continuously building tension between the saxophone
and percussion that never reaches a point of release. However, the
collaborations with Chicago improvisers that fill out the disc's second
half are a bit more problematic. While "The Late Approach" is grounded
by trombonist Jeb Bishop's plungered melodicism, the duets with John
Corbett ("The Step Sequence"), Terri Kapsalis ("The Interior Design")
and Fred Lonberg-Holm ("The Only Way Out") are typified by an overenthusiastic
excess that not only make for difficult listening but also impede
the overall musical flow of the disc.
But even though the products of all this experimentation sometimes
come out with mixed results, it's fortunate that labels like Meniscus
are getting music to the public that might not be heard otherwise—a
reason to celebrate that transcends both opinion and evaluation.