Review of Team Up with Rich West's Bedouin Hornbook
Approximately 50 years after California-made music was front and centre in the improv world, could we be in the midst of another West Coast Jazz phenomenon? On the evidence of some of the fine CDs recently released from the left side of the United States, the answer seems affirmative.
Unlike the 1950-1960 Cool Jazz interregnum, which was more-or-less Los Angeles-based -- with some San Francisco input -- this one stretches from San Diego in the south all the way up to Seattle, or Vancouver and other parts of British Columbia, if you ignore national borders. Unlike the homogenized, airy sound of the earlier epic as well, it involves more abrasive, harder tones and excursions -- although the real West Coast Jazz was never as musically facile as its detractors maintained.
Like the musicians in 1950-1960 however, the 21st century players don’t base their complete identity in the West and often go elsewhere for protracted periods. Furthermore in 2005’s climate of globalization, the sounds they make are as related to similar improvisational strategies evolving in Vienna, New York and Berlin as they are to other happenings in the Golden State.
That’s why these CDs, recorded in the same studio within six months of one another, and featuring two of the same musicians on both discs, sound so different. Drummer Rich West’s BEDOUIN HORNBOOK, a jaunty quintet session, built around Scott Ray’s tuba, is a scaled down cousin to rollicking ensembles like the ICP Orchestra. Guitarist Jeremy Drake and reedist Chris Heenan participate fully in this session, as does trumpeter Bruce Friedman. With drummer Stephen Flinn on TEAM UP however, Drake and Heenan are more atonal and busy exploring in methodical detail electro-acoustic improvising.
Drake, who spends his time on the sonic and timbral possibilities of the amplified acoustic guitar, usually performs with other experimenters such as drummer Alex Cline and fellow guitarist G. E. Stinson. Yet on BEDOUIN’s “Tribology”, for instance, his tone is so straight and his fills so close to standard picking that you’d think you were hearing Herb Ellis. Similarly Heenan, whose associations include gigs with an improvising clarinet trio and an on-the-edge duo with New York guitarist Chris Forsyth, plays a surprisingly mellow alto saxophone on the same tune, although he does allow himself some squeaks at the end.
Most of the piece’s shape comes from the rim shots and bounces of West, who when he isn’t improvising with free musicians like German multi-reedist Wolfgang Fuchs is playing in indie rock bands. Important imput also comes from a brassy and fussy trumpet lead from Friedman, who works elsewhere with Fuchs and Drake, plus the contrapuntal tuba ostinato from Scot Ray, who has not only been part of reedist Vinny Golia’s Large Ensemble, but toured with Brian Setzer’s Rockabilly orchestra. All in all, the session sounds like what would happen if Prime Time met up with a Second Line Brass Band.
Ray, who can slur and smear his textures on more jazzy pieces, gives a decadent Weimar Republic cabaret cast to “Friends of the Vacuum”, combining 1930s German pop and 1990s American rock. After some circling, chromatic trumpet runs, Drake expands his playing from finger picking to fuzztone licks and double-timed slides as the horn section vamps behind him. Here Friedman’s flutter tonguing is matched by rumbling drums and someone sounding what’s evidentially Harpo Marx’s old air horn -- it is LA after all.
West contributes a swinging march tempo and literal dance rhythms elsewhere, but the only time he’s involved with a Buddy Rich-like showiness is on “Tread”. Even on that piece, his solo serves as a bridge between two themes -- one metallic and slow and the other airy and speedier. Heenan’s slinky, legato alto sax line is doubled by the tuba and drum decoration, and then Friedman contributes his variations on the themes in a higher register.
Showpiece of the disc is the almost 15 minute “Twang”, which begins with a cistern-deep blast from tuba, then a spiccato bass line from the guitar. Throughout, the plectrumist uses scrapes to reshape and recapitulate the motif, while Ray supplies the pedal point continuum and West double strokes his drums. When it appears as if the slurred tuba lines, percussion ratamacues and frailing guitar licks are going to push the composition into dissonance, a jolly tarantella-like melody featuring tuba toots and Mr. Bones style drumming supersedes it. Combining, the five players exit the piece with a smooth polyphonic chord.
Should your tastes run more towards dissonance, you’ll find plenty of that on TEAM UP. On the CD, Flinn, who has recorded with folks like British bassist Tony Wren and New York guitarist Bruce Eisenbeil, makes West -- who in reality is pretty restrained -- sound like Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham.
Mostly confining himself to chain shakes, drum stick on ride cymbal scratches and bell pings, the percussionist barely rattles or ruffles his snares, toms and bass drum and even then only infrequently. Yet his cymbal splashes and other drum legerdemain manage to recurrently shape themselves into cascading organ-like tones, carillon chimes and reflective resonation. There may be some electronics involved as well, since at various points the unmistakable drone of sine wave distortions pulsates throughout.
Drake amplifies the ponticello runs he brings to the other session with pedal distortion, but here he also diffuses his picking power so that it meshes with tongue slaps and honks from Heenan and subtle ruffs from Flinn. There’s even a point on “A certain distance between individuals” where he creates Hawaiian guitar-like quivers that alternate with distracted finger picking. For his part the reedist supplies tongue slaps, bubbling raspberries and general mouth percussion that include Wild Mouse rides up the scale. Harsh, slurred string attacks are echoed by tough, bird twittering tones from the saxist. All this ends with a single percussion bop that could as easily come from a slammed foot as any percussion instrument.
Smears and scratches come to a head on the almost 15 minute “The oscillation of arc & circle”. Here Drake appears to be confining himself to the areas on his guitar along the neck and under the bridge, and Flinn sounds as if he’s using a whisk on aluminum take-out containers, not snares or toms. Following a short counterpoint of wiggled split tones, amplifier reverb gives the others more of an electric background on which to work. The saxman wheezes out airy partial tones that are mostly colored air, while a single tone oscillates every which way, without any aural identification as reed, string or stretched skin.
Following a tugboat whistle blow from Heenan’s contrabass clarinet, he double-tongues to a shrill pitch -- then sinks the equivalent distance in the bass clef. In response Flinn bangs and smashes his cymbal and the finale features twisting lines cutting through strident reed timbres.
Listening to the differences between the CDs, it may be difficult to be convinced of the overlap in personnel. Yet both offer an up-to-the-minute look at 21st century West Coast improv.
-- Ken Waxman