Posts Tagged ‘Bitches Brew’

What does the term ‘experimental music’ mean? Forty years after Jon Hassell, sixty years after John Cage and Stockhausen, the term, like ‘indie’, is only a shell of its former, dangerous, meaning.

We lend half an ear without particularly ‘listening’ to its strange bleeps and glassy lunarscapes on video games, behind the action of blockbuster movies and – I could be wrong – I may have even heard some Cluster wafting across Aisle 5 at Coles last Thursday.

If the cultural blizzard/shitstorm of the Twentieth Century taught us anything, it is Music is Music. Sure, many cling to Genre as if it is a raft in a howling sea – Blues for example. But beyond those museum pieces, new music continues to be made. In one sense, anything that looks forward is experimental music.

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Sydney group Forenzics is a four piece improvising collective who make music that is full of heart and beauty – contradicting the charge that experimental music is cold, cerebral and can only be appreciated on a mathematical level. The fact that it is improvised puts it theoretically in the jazz camp, and the four – founding guitarists Matthew Syres and Dirk Kruithof, drummer John Wilton and trumpeter Joe Cummins – play telepathically together like a great be-bop band or, more accurately, like a smoking’ free jazz combo. They listen to and feed off each other, growing the music in intensity and trajectory as they go. But that is as close to jazz as it gets.

Their fourth album together is Malign. It is completely improvised in the studio, with no overdubs, edits or preconceptions. The mission statement of our intrepid auranauts is to “play what you feel without limits and boundaries, only that (the music) must be created there and then with no restrictions on genre, texture, format or structure”.

It could be a bloody mess. But of course it is not – Malign is beautiful.forenzics2

The influence of 70s ‘ambient’ (another scoured-out word) trumpet visionary, Jon Hassell is evident from opener ‘a dusk service/sun checks’. Behind Cummins’ darkly glowing trumpet the guitars roll and pitch. In fact, across Malign the guitars rarely sound like guitars; they are used as sound generators to give the effects something to chew on and spit out as drones, luminous shafts of sound or robotic breathing. The occasional chord or arpeggio breaks the alien surface now and again but it is mainly beautifully controlled textures that the two focus on.

Texture also is the approach of drummer John Wilton. Even though there is the occasional muffled African heartbeat – such is on the Afro-Hassell ‘you’re entitled’ – Wilton brilliantly uses his percussives to scratch, dent and mottle the smooth surface of the guitars. It is a hard call for a drummer to take away the dimension of pulse-rhythm from his playing – very few could do it this well.

The influence of Miles Davis‘ earth-shaking Bitches Brew also stretches across Forenzics’ music. Cummins’ trumpet is the humanising element that gives Malign much of its surprising accessibility. Never FXed into unrecognisability, his pure tone is harmonised on ‘song games’, heavily reverbed on ‘stone cold crazies’ and echoed-up on ‘cubists’ yet remains a bright yet subtle acoustic voice above the strangescapes beneath.

Cummins’ most affecting improvisation is the entirely unadorned elegy he plays over ‘acid nekk’. Beneath him, a distorted drone of dying machines blackens the earth. Electronic twitches and rattles and hums are the death throes of an electronic  junk pile. The slow and sombre trumpet line over this machine graveyard somehow sums up something about the way we live – something indefinable. Experimental music is not supposed to affect one this deeply.

But it does. In fact all of Malign does. Yes, like all good modern art it asks to be listened to on its own terms. Yet it does not push away but creates a place for the listener to go and to explore as it happens. Unlike too much ‘experimental’ music, it includes; it does not exclude.

Published March 2015 on australianjazz.net and theorangepress.net

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Outside of hardcore jazz, albums built around a particular instrument are rare. If they do exist, they are either impenetrably virtuosic, one-trick ponies or for shred-heads only. Which kind of makes them a failure as music, in a way, if the value of music is to move you and me and my uncle Bernard.

When an album is built around the drums, the potential for failure increases. It is a brave artist – one with a true and deep belief in their ability to move their listeners, above and below the waist – who would attempt to carry it off.

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In the case of New Zealand drum polymath, Myele Manzanza it helps to be the son of Congolese master percussionist, Sam Manzanza. It also help that Myele Manzanza concieves of the drums as a “talking” instrument, one with a language which can speak to people. “Growing up, music and rhythm was all around me and I understood it from a very early age. Through my father I learnt the language of the drum probably at the same time as I learnt to talk!”

Long a core member of New Zealand’s acclaimed modern jazz-soul group, Electric Wire Hustle, Manzanza has stepped forward with his debut solo album, One.

And as if to lay out the fact that this is no po-faced instrumental professional’s showreel, One starts with the wickedly funny ‘Neighbour’s Intro’ – a jittering polyrhythmic drum solo sandwiched between two phone messages from politely irate neighbours calling to complain about Manzanza’s nocturnal drum practicing.

While we are smirking he smacks us with the roller coaster ride of ‘Big Space’, a 7/4 latin groove that carves its way through a dense, muli-coloured mesh of electro, shooting out the other end with a lovely wordless vocal from Bella Kalolo – reminiscent of 50s sci-fi movie soundtracks, but definitely cruising the Space of Now.Print

Kalolo features – with lyric this time – on the smooth-as-skin ‘Absent’ next: a cool soul groove built across an angular skeleton. The groove here is typical of Manzanza’s thing – irresistible drum rhythms which are built from highly original architectures: quite beautiful from whichever angle you look at them.

An example is ‘Delay’ which has Manzanza playing with the shapes thrown back at him by reverb echo delay – on the surface quite a simple backbeat but the ripples beneath the waters lend it a shimmering sparkle.

The lovely ‘Elvin’s Brew’ features keys player (and major collaborator) Mark de Clive Lowe. Perhaps namechecking jazz drum colossus Elvin Jones (and Miles Davis‘ Bitches Brew) the track is built on a dreamlike cloud of billowing tom-toms under acoustic keys and electro blips-and-snaps.

Other guests include Myele’s father, Sam Manzanza, NZ’s Ladi 6, Bella Kalolo, Mara TK and Rachel Fraser. International guests include Charlie K from ex-Philadelphia Hip Hop group ‘Writtenhouse’, Canadian vocalist Amenta and James Wylie’s Boston based woodwind section.

The lovely woodwinds form a spectral backwash to the completely transporting ‘City of Atlantis’, their timbre reminiscent of Herbie Hancock‘s psych-funk albums of the 70s such as Speak Like A Child. There are so many flavours here from a similar time and headspace – Stevie Wonder synth squiggles, Weather Report ‘world’ beatz (dig the pan-African percussion of ‘7 Bar Thing’), George Duke Rhodes phat phunk.

The old and the new, the acoustic and the digital, soul and jazz, rap and song – all these strands are bound together by the tight yet embracing sinew of Myele Manzanza’s omniscient drums.

He says of One: “Creating this album has been a real process. Each track has it’s own story and developed in it’s own interesting and sometimes unexpected way. This is my first experience in creating my own solo full length body of work and the guest artists were great in helping me to realise my vi­sion. It was also really exciting to work with a woodwind sec­tion in Boston with James Wylie, and see a little fragment of harmony I was messing around with turn into the blooming orchestral parts of ‘City of Atlantis’ and ‘7 Bar Thing’.”

Blooming. One has a feeling of flowering and blooming, a joyful and summery efflorescence that could not come from a mere virtuoso. It need to come from a Musician – there is a difference.

And if you don’t know the difference, check out Myele Manzanza’s One and you will.

Myele Manzanza’s website is here.

Published September 2013 on theorangepress.net

The first time I listened to Jen Cloher’s new record, In Blood Memory, I was in bed, awash on a sea of cheap red wine, rolling in that place between sleep and wake. I always thought it was the perfect place to listen to music – an uncritical space where intellect is irrelevant and feeling is all.

Sort of like the best rock and roll.

The second time I listened to In Blood Memory – thinking its beauty had seduced me on that first drunken listen while I wasn’t looking – was on a night train, rolling through the city. Once again, Cloher’s music took me away, the passing rail lights twinkling as if in a dream.

Jen Cloher

In Blood Memory is a collection of songs that seem to call from that primal place where the best music and art is made. Evanescent, ill-defined, dreamily visceral, cloudy. It is the hazy place of The Velvet UndergroundBitches Brew, one-chord blues, Mark Rothko’s blur-edged canvases.

It is also very very beautiful, with a beauty that is just beyond your grasp, and far far beyond language.

A song such as ‘Name In Lights’, the album’s second track, swings between angular rock and roll (with a nicely smacked-out ‘Wild Thing’ garage breakdown in the middle) and a frenzied ending, the band almost drowning Cloher’s “There’s nothing I can do” refrain in dervish-like intensity. This coda brings to mind that of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” where a repeated pattern is slowly sand-blasted by howling synthesized wind until detail is eradicated down to white noise. Once again, the blurred shape.cloher2

The final track, ‘Hold My Hand’ has a similar curve, with an ominous thunderhead of an ending (with a raw-edged dissonant final chord) surprising after a coolly passionate song.

‘Kamikaze Origami’ and ‘David Bowie Eyes’ (“one is green and one is blue”) are Lou Reed country-rock gems. The latter has Cloher singing “She’s got David Bowie eyes” with the same downward inflection that Kim Carnes put on 1981’s “She’s Got Bette Davis Eyes”. Pop culture references abound throughout In Blood MemoryDarren Hanlon rubs denimed shoulders with YokoMeryl Streep breaks on through with The Lizard King. Cloher can’t help singing the word “changes” as “ch-ch-changes” on ‘Name In Lights’.

As wonderful as the songs are – and every one is wonderful – it is Jen Cloher’s voice and the band that elevate the album. She inhabits each song as only a songwriter can (think Paul Simon, Reed or Lennon), swaggering, aching (the luminous ‘Needs’), spitting over unwashed guitars (the Stonesy rolling ‘Toothless Tiger’). ‘Toothless Tiger’ shows her band as a band – a breathing many-armed beastie that lives a full life if only for 3:52. That the same band can also weave fresh-air country tapestries such as ‘Kamikaze Origami’ is nicely surprising.

In Blood Memory is a very beautiful album of great rock and roll. It puts Jen Cloher firmly to the forefront of Australian songwriters. If I hear a better Oz album this year I will be pretty bloody surprised.

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Prior to publishing this review I asked Jen a handful of questions. Here are her responses:

TOP: It is four years since your last album, Hidden Hands. What was the spark that led to In Blood Memory?

Cloher: I’d been writing for a couple of years, doing all sorts of stuff. I spent some time co-writing and even recorded some duets, one with Kieran Ryan and another with Courtney Barnett. But I found co-writing strange, it was fun but it didn’t feel like I’d want to write a whole album that way. I guess I was trying to find something new to open up my songwriting. One day I picked up the guitar and started writing a song called ‘Mount Beauty’ and it felt different, there was something about it that felt new. That was the first single from the new album and opened the door to the rest of the album. It came very quickly after that, over about six months, then we headed straight into the studio and recorded the album in six days.

TOP: The band really sounds like a band – how do you as songwriter interact with your chosen musos? Benevolent despot or one of the guys?

Cloher: We recorded live in a big room with my band at Headgap Studios in Melbourne. They’re my closest friends and I see them pretty much everyday, so there isn’t too much that needs to be communicated. When you’re recording live you have to listen closely to each other and move as a whole. I love that feeling, of finding a great performance in the studio and committing it to tape.

TOP: There are references to a return to youth in several of the songs – ‘Make me feel like I’m seventeen/Listening to the Lizard King…’ or ‘I’ll pretend I’m younger…’  Do you feel your generation feels this more keenly than any previous generation?

Cloher: It’s hard to say. All I know is that I’m getting older, and when you get older you start to reflect on where you’ve come from. It’s strange because you never think you are going to get older and then all of a sudden you are. We live in a society where expectation is placed on your age. I see younger friends feeling like failures in their mid 20’s! It’s ridiculous how much emphasis we place on achieving certain things by a certain age, people are celebrated for being young and successful. But when it comes to art, who really cares how old you are? It’s the art that will stand the test of time.

TOP: Where do your songs come from?

Cloher: If I knew I’d go there all the time.

TOP: ‘Ch-ch-changes’, ‘David Bowie Eyes’, Yoko, Meryl Streep – Pop culture seems to be just under the skin of your songs. Does Pop culture inform your approach to writing?

Cloher: It’s strange but for some reason all of these pop culture references started to find their way into my songs. I guess I discovered how much I am influenced by what has gone before me. While I was writing the album I was reading Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ and Neil Young’s ‘Shaky’ – two artists with very different but equally intriguing journeys through rock n roll. I also name check Darren Hanlon in the song ‘Name In Lights’ because he’s a legend.

TOP: Your vocal delivery seems to carry a great deal of light and shade. You are a NIDA graduate – do you feel as if theatre work shapes how you deliver a song?

Cloher: Absolutely, it’s not a conscious decision I make when I write a song but songs are essentially stories, and a story is always going to end somewhere different to where it started. I love epic songs for that reason. After listening to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ or Patti Smith’s ‘Horses’ you feel transformed. That’s the power and chemistry of music – the ability to communicate so much in such a sort amount of time.

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Jen Cloher and her band launch In Blood Memory at Melbourne’s Vic at The Corner Hotel Friday 28 June. In Sydney the launch is at The Oxford Art Factory Friday 12 July.

Published June 2013 on theorangepress.net