|One Final Note Review: With the aid of Matthew Shipp and an eclectic catalog base, Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series has positioned itself as one of the best marketed and most critically acclaimed of independent creative music labels. The label’s releases regularly score highly on the CMJ charts and have made the coverage cut at normally ambivalent high circulation glossies like Entertainment Weekly. All the critical attention is well deserved. With recent projects they’ve also established themselves at the apex of the current alchemical experiments seeking to merge jazz with DJ and electronic elements, and adopting the questing query of “What Is Jazz…Really?” as their guiding mantra. This second salvo from the Spring Heel Jack team seems perfect fodder for the tried and not-necessarily true “I can tell you what it isn’t” retort. A sticker on the jewel case announces The Wire’s assertion of “A Total Triumph” and the BBC’s intention to nominate the disc as “Innovative Jazz Recording of the Year.” Not much room for error there. But actual listening reveals that jazz ingredients are more difficult to spot and capture than these superlative accolades might indicate.
A primary contributor to the obfuscating nature of the work is the roster on hand to actualize it. This time around the core duo of John Coxon and Ashley Wales draws primarily on improvisatory talent from their side of the Atlantic. The history of European improvisation is flavored with repeated attempts by its purveyors to distance and differentiate themselves from the American (some read African-American) traditions of jazz. Abstract and impressionist values regularly enter the currency of their work and jazz referents are often fleeting. Such is the case with the music here. A weighty industrialized backdrop of ambient textures serves as palette for John Edwards’ rotund bass plucks and Evan Parker’s breathy tenor flutters as Han Bennink’s manic traps work fits snugly into the chaotic and uncertain terrain. Paul Rutherford’s guttural trombone vocalizations form the crux of the title piece moving laboriously amidst the gilded atmospherics of Fender Rhodes. Edwards (or is it George Trebar?) again sounds gargantuan and Spaceman leads the ensemble into a brief, but violent vortex of dissonance with a screeching run down the frets. The Spiritualized guitarist guides the opening minutes of “Wormwood” as well, shaving off fuzz-caked, rock-inflected walls of sound from his strings that contrast with the comparatively clean articulations of Parker’s sax. Voices rise from the feedback-encrusted mire, moving in ghostly orbits that eschew an easily gleaned tonal center. Certain tracks like the amorphous “100 Years Before” are at turns acerbic and serene as acoustic instruments vie with excoriating electronic static. Other ones such as “Duel,” where Parker’s echolalic lines wrestling mightily against Shipp’s incessant stabs at a single piano key leave something to be desired.
The Wire’s earlier-mentioned encomium may err toward the hyperbolic and the BBC’s designation of this disc as a jazz document may miss the point, but there’s definitely something important and even groundbreaking going on here. Listeners with ears oriented toward fresh directions in improvised music are likely to find an answer to their cravings in these hybridized sounds.