Friday, January 06, 2006

the in(die) crowd

Went to see Rackham for about an hour last night at the PP Café. The very good concert made me think about the renewal fusion/jazz-rock is going through. Though the term still evokes the late 60s/70s context that birthed it, newer groups have clearly changed the parameters. Originally, there were two sources: prog-rock and funk. So you had the virtuosity, unisons and tricky meters of, say, the Mahavishnu Orchestra on one side and Miles Davis's weird, swampy groove explorations on the other. An example of evolution was the über-complex funk base developed by Steve Coleman that has lent itself to everything from hip-hop jams ("The Way of The Cipher") to grandiose Third Stream (the impressive, yet generally overlooked, "Genesis"). Electric Masada's recent album kind of shows the path the more accessible end of the Miles Davis spectrum has taken. And, of course, more straight-forward jazz/hip-hop fusion has become a norm of its own over the years (Iswhat?!'s "You Figure It Out" is highly recommended because it deviates imaginatively from that norm. Just one track? "Cold Hands," but the original, not the DJ Spinna remix).

I'm not hugely knowledgeable of current (or past) indie-rock (I have this dread feeling that someone is going to come and tear me to shreds...), but I've been listening intently to The Arcade Fire and Sigur Rós recently, which has been giving me some ideas for this post. Sigur Rós, for example, build these long, slow songs on relatively simple harmonies, which brought into sharper focus the fact that this new jazz-rock I'll be talking about in this post has generally abandoned the complexity of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and M-Base traditions, but also the groovy-weird-sound-pile-up of the Miles Davis followers (of course, other bands continue in those footsteps: in Belgium Erwin Vann's (greatly aided in this by keyboardist Jozef Dumoulin) "Let's Call Ed" has no lack of weird sounds, Bo Van Der Werf's Octurn has never been accused of being too simple).

Nate Chinen's article on jazz and indie-rock (which is no longer available for free on the NYT site, but I cleverly posted it on Jazz Corner while it was) was interesting, but unfortunately he devotes too much space to only the most commercially-obvious people, who are not necessarily the most relevant (did James Carter's "Gold Sounds" really deserve 2.5 paragraphs, while a laundry-list of interesting-sounding musicians is crammed into 2.5 (admittedly longer) paragraphs at the end?). For example, Brad Mehldau, for me, has very little to do with indie-rock, but is simply drawing on a few tunes that can participate in his personal redefinition of piano trio music (Darcy's post on this same subject puts it better than I can and contains lots of other interesting points). The Bad Plus is closer to the mark ("Anthem for the Earnest," with its insistent 80's-ish beats, from "Suspicious Activity?" is particularly awesome). The previously mentioned laundry list should really have formed the main topic of the article, while the mentions of Jim Black's AlasNoAxis and Chris Speed's Yeah/No are criminally brief.

When I saw it a few years ago, I found AlasNoAxis *too* squarely rock in its structures and beats, but later I warmed a bit to its last album. Yeah/No's "Swell Henry" from 2004 was a more interesting and nuanced take and what initially seemed to me forbiddingly gray and downcast progressively revealed its melodies and feelings. Then there's part of what Ellery Eskelin's trio with Andrea Parkins and Jim Black does ("Arcanum Moderne" has some particularly potent examples of an avant-jazz/indie/noise/soundscape mindset). This is just one corner of NY's Downtown scene, I'm sure there are many more examples I'm not aware of (of the groups mentioned in Chinen's article, you can hear and see Trevor Dunn's Trio Convulsant here and download Kneebody's album from emusic, which I intend to do as soon as my account is replenished).

Across the Atlantic, there's the UK's Acoustic Ladyland (which shares three members with Polar Bear, but the two bands make completely different music), which plays an explosive rock/free-jazz/punk hybrid, but channels it through pop-ish structures and devices (simple repeated melodies, new riffs for each section, sounds carefully placed in the mix (keyboardist Tom Crawley is particularly remarkable in this regard), no long solos and even a song called "Perfect Bitch" sung with a beautiful snarl of an English accent). In Belgium, there's Qu4tre, which gently prods jazz-rock into the 00s with gradually-building arrangements underneath Nicolas Kummert's smooth, Nordic-inspired saxophone. Coming back to Rackham, there's, for example, the influence of Calexico in trembling guitar chords and one tune with slightly mariachi-tinged horns, but also of Pachora's Downtown-klezmer when leader Toine Thys takes out his clarinet. The concert started with happy, 70s post-Hendrix rock (guitarist Benjamin Clément was brilliant throughout the concert), but bassist François Verrue's black short-sleeved shirt and big black-rimmed glasses screamed NY indie hipster.