Lester Bowie Brass Fantasy
The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music
The Distance Between Us
Delightfully audacious in both concept and execution, the new albums by revered jazz avant-gardists Lester Bowie and William Hooker are just the kind of screwball longplayers that are anathema for tight-assed traditionalists such as Wynton Marsalis. And if that's not reason enough to overlook some of the flaws in each set (and it is), the discs are at least challenging and fun, full of unexpected twists and unchartered left turns, things you never hear in the stuffy work of contemporary mainstream bopsters.
On The Odyssey of Funk & Popular Music, Bowie (an alumnus of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) turns his trumpet toward songs you're unlikely to find on any album in the jazz racks (unless someone else out there has covered the Spice Girls' "Two Become One"). Marilyn Manson's "Beautiful People" becomes a raging, New Orleans-style stomp, with the nine-piece brass ensemble screeching atop thunderous percussion, and the whole band screaming in cacophonous glee. On "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" Bowie redeems the inherent goo and sap of Andrew Lloyd Webber's unctuous weeper by fiddling around with the melody, sometimes taking it slow and sweet, other times sending out a cluster of notes before jump-starting this Broadway bomb with a vaguely Latin groove that's both unexpected and perfectly irreverent.
Sadly not everything here works that well. The Notorious B.I.G.'s "Notorious Thugs" moves at a fetchingly creepy pace, but ultimately fails if only because guest vocalist Dean Bowman ain't no Big Poppa. Similarly, the takes here of "In the Still of the Night" and "The Birth of the Blues" aren't much better than the dozens of existing versions to be found in the annals of jazz history. Much better is Puccini's "Nessun Dorma," highlighted by some beautiful trombone work courtesy of Luis Bonilla. Oh, and that Spice Girls cover? Gorgeous.
Hooker's The Distance Between Us finds the oddball NYC drummer/poet/bandleader swinging from eerie percussion-laden moans ("The Gates") to a nice little piece of minimalist esoterica punctuated by the stunning piano work of Mark Hennen ("Pure Imagination"). There's also "Sensor Suite," a four-part, nearly 40-minute blast of white-noisy honking, pounding, and string-strangling that might be the best thing the always-interesting Hooker has ever committed to tape. The surprises here, though, are the guitar-soaked covers of Sonic Youth's "Because (Of You): Dimension 1" and "Because (Of You): Dimension 2," which bookend "Sensor Suite." With the two pieces clocking in at just under eighteen minutes, most of them dominated by the quasi-Patti Smith-isms of Gisburg (yep, just Gisburg), it goes without saying that they could've been pared down by about ten minutes. What keeps you interested, though, is the way Hooker controls the beat, driving the song as if the ghosts of Keith Moon and Al Jackson are giving him directions from the back seat.
Is it jazz? Sure, why not? Would it meet the approval of Wynton Marsalis and his white-bread fans at NPR? Hell no. I can't think of a better endorsement.
-- John Floyd
"Phalanx," the first track on Jega's Spectrum, opens like a feverish Depeche Mode dream wave: rich-sounding, mid-80s synth against a field of pinging falsetto beats. Once you've adjusted to such sounds used here, you will open up to the more profound shocks Jega offers on his debut album, originally released in the United Kingdom in 1998. A lot of the work in describing Spectrum can be avoided by invoking the newest sure-to-be-abused electronic music catchall, "drill and bass," and the mental impression it arouses: skittering, high-end rhythms. Essentially the term refers to a handful of acts who use rhythm generators in the same way that older pop stars used their voices and instruments. Drill and bass (the term is already painful to use) doesn't simply emphasize beat over melody; it utilizes a wide range of percussive tones to create quasi melodies.
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This misuse of the drum machine is the most fascinating thing about sonic extremists like Atari Teenage Riot, and it's the most interesting aspect of Jega's sound. Take the third track, "Musical Chairz," in which the main rhythmic pulse switches between three distinct lines: a run of piercing synth tones, a more traditional low-end beat, and a battery of midrange keyboards. At times these three parts run together in a lock step rhythmic track; at other moments one particular set of tones might undergird the composition as a rhythmic element, then float on top as a melodic line. With each of the lines speeding up and slowing down seemingly at Jega's whim, it's a nice turn that the song manages to retain a groove. Some of the later tunes on Spectrum ("Gemini," "Manic Minor," and the aggressive "Pitbull") also toy with similar effects. Consisting of tightly woven, highly varied beat patterns, Jega's music at its best seems caught between the worlds of melody and rhythm, dedicated only to structure.
It's unsurprising, then, that Jega's sole member, Dylan Nathan, studied architecture in school; it helps explain his running fascination with ornate yet functional musical constructions. If there's a downside to Spectrum, it's that his hardware evidently limits the range of sounds Nathan is able to evoke. A lot of the bleeps and tones on Spectrum, along with its overall footprint, are very similar to that of Nathan's sonic confederates: Aphex's Richard D. James album, only less symphonic; Autechere's au, only less hyperkinetic; Amon Tobin's Permutations, only with less world-music influence and less warmth. He only occasionally falls victim to the Jaco Pastorius emulation that plagues other wannabe British jazzbos such as Squarepusher ("Red Mullet" sounds more like wack funk-jazz fusion than the sound of tomorrow). But for the most part, he manages to deliver unusual treats like the leads on "Brad's Garden Maintenance," which sounds as though it's being played by the world's first theremin prodigy, and "Bikini Ski Boat," which sounds so squeaky and elastic, one imagines it's the first-ever musical performance on a rubber chew toy.
-- Alec Hanley Bemis