Mark Trayle/Vinny Golia
Music for Electronics and Woodwings
Bert Turetzky/Mike Wofford
Transition And Transformation
Water And Blood
I turned to free jazz early on. I was a pissed off teenager, far too angry to be fully sated by Birth Of Cool -era Miles Davis. No, I needed to have the aural equivalent of a natural disaster in my ears. Some of it was better than I would’ve ever dreamed. There are recordings by early extremists like Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra, or Albert Ayler out there that go way beyond my wildest dreams of brutality and then there were albums by John Zorn, Peter Brotzmann, Derek Bailey, and eventually, Merzbow that went even farther than free jazz; these recordings were like getting knifed in an alleyway.
I managed to get that violent fix in, but what I didn’t account for was how much more thought and feeling there would be embedded in these recordings. A disproportionate amount of teen angst catapulted me into a sea of recordings that I hold dear, music that made me think not only think about the world around me but music that pointed out where that world was completely full of shit. My expectations were systemically smashed by a variety of individuals whom I had discovered under the guise of the “free” genre. What I didn’t realize at the time was that it wasn’t simply a matter of breaking rules that made the music; it had to do with these people, their lives and their personalities. This brings us to the 9 Winds record label. Started by multi-faceted reed player Vinny Golia in the late ’70s, 9 Winds is pretty much endlessly dedicated to releasing jazz by some established, but often overlooked players. These are players that dealt with free jazz as a starting point, much like Brotzman or Bailey, but rather than reconfiguring the few remaining structural elements, started to integrate forms and structures from time past.
In fact, jazz music was becoming more strictly composed then ever. Musically, people like Tim Berne, Vinny Golia, John Rapson, or Django Bates were beginning to create something of a jazz analogy to =46rank Zappa’s classical composition; awkward modal passages with intensely jagged rhythms occasionally interspersed with some distinctly wild chops. I think they deemed the genre “Modern Creative”; some people succeeded, others didn’t. More often than not, the compositions would become bogged down by the weight of their complexity, forgetting that a dissonant interval doesn’t make for jazz music the way energy and experience does. The four new releases on 9 Winds run the gamut, ranging from ecstatic improvisation to academic precision, making stops at Latin jazz, classical composition, fusion, and modern electronics, and at its best, finding a nice balance somewhere in the middle.
There is no better place to start than with label founder, Vinny Golia. Teaming up with the laptop-toting Mark Trayle, Golia attempts to make the time-tested and approved statement “technology and soul can co-exist peacefully on the same cohesive spiritually unified plane.” That’s not a direct quote, but maybe it gives you an idea of what to expect. If not, take the wildly imaginative title, Music For Electronics and Woodwinds, which I think gives a pretty accurate description of the sounds unleashed. Yes. There are a bunch of computer blurts and fizzles, most of which, for some reason, don’t last any longer than a second. There is a panoply of wild reed sounds. Sounds, that, if aren’t displaying Golia’s skill as an improviser, are at least emblematic of his versatility in instrumental approach and carefully cultivated technical ability; overall showing that Golia can play his saxophones… fast. If you leave a recording with the impression, “Wow. He really played his instrument quickly,” is that enough? There are plenty of sensitive moments, certainly, but it is clearly very difficult for Golia to respond to the computer-generated whirring all around him.
About that computer-generated whirring, Mark Trayle’s playing is also decidedly inconsistent. Sometimes those digital snaps and shuffles are incredibly evocative and feel distinctly personal, sometimes they sound like they are only valid because they are made on a computer with a complicated program. The tonal palette is also rather limited, which is somewhat disappointing considering a computer is capable of reproducing just about any known and occasionally some unknown sounds.
The context that is more relevant than either of the players individually display, of course. Golia is an established musician, there=EDs no need to prove his chops anymore and its clear that this duo was established with the intention of a challenging himself. It’s very successful in that regard. Despite being rather common in improvisation settings in recent years, laptops are still are presenting new questions to these players. Trayle makes a point of using sounds made in real-time, rather than bringing “improvisation vs. prerecorded” issues into play, and draws from Golia’s playing on several occasions during the recording, which are uniquely strong. The track “Imparticle” even has Trayle remixing the playing, in a matter of speaking. He goes back and adds “studio trickery,” as he puts it in the liner notes. Experimentation is imminent here. Even if Music For Electronics and Woodwinds is not the most groundbreaking collection of sounds, or even completely successful, it’s always a pleasure to hear people pushing their expectations of themselves.
Johnnie Valentino’s Searching Souls suffers from an almost complete lack of that vitality and experimentation. I guess this is modern avant-garde music; there are long atonal motifs and Wadada Leo Smith plays trumpet on one or two tracks. I’m just having trouble qualifying it as anything but fusion, being that there is the same banal, Bill Frisell meets Pat Metheny, guitar playing on each and every track. I feel awful putting down someone who makes music. I think any kind of artwork takes time, dedication, and energy from anyone who creates it and Johnnie Valentino seems to have put some effort into this release. I just can’t see any use for it besides background music. It sounds like an aborted film soundtrack. Maybe this is some kind of tongue-in-cheek satire of spacey fusion jazz, I don’t know. Worst of all, Johnnie seems to be some kind of born-again Christian, the album title, his songs are published by Secret Light Music, and there’s some tactful blurb about god in the acknowledgements. It’s not that I’m against religion in music, I’m just against religion in his music. Out of the four releases, this is the only one without any sense of edge, personality, or attention to craft.
John Rapson’s Water And Blood is in a completely different league from Valentino’s record. It is still a flawed release, but it has at least an underlying sense of ambition to it. The project involved Rapson requesting recordings from the legendary drummer Billy Higgins (easily recognizable from Ornette Coleman’s classic recordings, among other ensembles) playing solo and in combination with bassist Roberto Miranda. Rapson then took the recordings, transcribed them, and added layers of music overtop of them, hoping, I assume, to give the impression of a Maceo Parker/Miles Davis-like excursion, though unfortunately lacking the delicacy or finesse. For a drummer like Higgins, is it even necessary that they release anything but the drum solos? Who’s even heard of John Rapson? On top of that, who would name their album Water And Blood, intentionally and obtusely referring to the kidney and liver failure that lead to the death of the musician responsible for the bones of their project, for which the artist in question takes most of the compositional credit for, Higgins being a musician, may I add, that the artist has only met once? This doesn’t seem very ethical, but I’m no George W. Bush, so you’ll have to cut me some slack.
Let’s ignore all of this. Let me make it clear that I really want to like the 9 Winds record label at this point. I want to believe that this is a record label releasing challenging music and going criminally unacknowledged. Despite what you may think, as a critic, it would be more rewarding for me to perpetuate meaningful music that obliterate the obsolete, but it might be two sides of the same coin. I just can’t help but notice the element of mundane comfort mixed in with a music that used to be about blood and guts for me. Rapson is a little heavy on the water, and he mixes it at a volume that drowns out the blood. The track “Rosewood And Palms” has an awful Latin-tinged motif, with a guitar tone sounding like it just dripped out of Pat Metheny’s suntan lotion bottle, though I’ll admit, in a rather embarrassed tone, that the piece has become more enjoyable on subsequent listens. I think Pat Metheny really sucks, by the way, in case you guys were wondering. I know he made albums with Ornette Coleman and Derek Bailey, so if you’re going to e-mail me about how stupid I am, don’t bring that up. If you’d like some advice, I’d recommend bringing up my failed relationships with women or the amount of time I spent on the computer.
Rapson punctuates Higgins’ colorful drumming with jittery modality and timbral vigor; making references to multiple styles and phrasing melodies in often surprising ways. Unfortunately, the drumming, the sole point of these recordings, is downplayed, hardly given any room to breathe amid a minefield of instrumental explosions, explosions that disrupt any sense of atmosphere and often leave an aftertaste of academicism. Maybe this isn’t all so bad. Take the opening track, “Moses on Call Waiting.” Initial stabs sounding like Japanese Court Music eventually become something a lot more swinging, and further progressing into the use of a rather Middle Eastern sounding horn line. This is some complex music, I guess. So much jazz faces the dilemma of being monochromatic, due to a reliance on instrumentation and certain cadences. It is a genre with emphasis on soloists, more so than composers, soloists who somehow can transmit something stylizing and unique into a rigid formula. Rapson is definitely a composer and this is a different kind of jazz, as all of the releases thus far have been, to 9 Winds’ credit. It’s just that Rapson isn’t entirely effective at making compositions that have panache. Thanks to recording technology, Rapson makes sure that all of Higgins’ rhythmic phrases are punctuated by some kind of music harmony and the compositions end up being very diluted because of it. Add some rather cheap reverb and a couple of faux Latin numbers and you’ll find Water And Blood, while being a good, occasionally exciting release, isn’t wholly memorable.
The fourth release, Transition & Transformation, is memorable, however. Bert Turetzky and Mike Wofford effectively integrate classically-inspired music into their playing in a way that most other “Modern Creative” musicians can’t take credit for. There is no Zappa-esque quirk, no demeaning genre-hopping, and a complete outpouring of real feeling. This is an album of complete pieces, each with a flow and sense of congruence. There is a deeply melancholic drama to the proceedings, Turetzky creates incredibly dense bass sounds with his bowing technique, giving an overall sense of misery to the proceedings. Standards by Oscar Pettiford, Charles Mingus, and Thelonious Monk show that Turetzky and Wofford pledge allegiance to jazz, regardless of how broad their musical scope is.
Careful harmonies that are thoughtfully placed and playing that is thoughtfully paced creates for an exciting album that becomes progressively more interesting and surprising with each track. With admirable restraint, Turetzky and Wofford employ three cellists, vocalist Kristin Korb, and trombonist George Lewis to add to their palette on several tracks, without disrupting the duo dynamic that the album seems to accentuate. Transition & Transformation is an album beyond easy description, dealing with sound on its own terms and always transcending easy idioms.
You probably won’t walk into many record stores and hear or see releases on 9 Winds. They’re too weird to be in your local chain store and maybe not hip enough for your local indie store, but they’re releasing music that should be heard and recorded in the history books. Maybe it’s not the most extreme and original music released, but it is music born out of a circumstance and a culture that seems to be going ignored by the avant-cognoscenti. Hopefully, 9 Winds themselves will realize this and re-release some of their catalog, with hundreds of earlier, perhaps equally exciting out-of-print titles, and better establish their place in the spectrum.
They also might want to get a new art director. These are some ugly covers.
9 Winds Records: http://members.aol.com/ninewinds