SPRING HEEL JACK

Masses
Thirsty Ear TH 570103.2

Taking the next step beyond electronica, the British duo Spring Hill Jack (SHJ) has enlisted a clutch of top flight New York players to improvise over a series of pre-recorded backing tracks. While some might see it as the strangest British-American union since Elizabeth Taylor married Mike Todd, the end result, while not perfect, works most of the time.

Commonplace in pop music since the time Kiki Dee and Elton John recorded a duet single hit in different studios on different continents, the risks are higher when it comes to improv. Accustomed to responding to fellow musicians' physical presence and familiar gambits, here another, non-flexible element comes into play. Generally the most noteworthy tracks are those which allow the players the fullest scope and dynamics; the slower, quieter tracks often resemble electronica-tinged New Age soporifics.

Interestingly enough, it's the title track that takes pride of place. Percussion effects from bells, wood and chimes arrive courtesy of SHJ, as does a tape of Evan Parker's circular soprano saxophone blowing. Fitting ball-in-socket to this is Matthew Shipp's spiky straightforward pianisms, shimmering string echoes from Mat Maneri's viola and chainsaw bowing from William Parker's bass. Especially impressive is how the pre-taped bells and crunches seem to complement Parker's arco excursions, while the combination of Guillermo Brown's "live" percussion and the pre-taped variety joins with Daniel Carter's tenor saxophone lines to suggest John Coltrane's group with two drummers.

"Salt", which posits how Evan Parker's reed mastery would fit with the Shipp-W.Parker-Brown rhythm section is another achievement, since the individuality of both the pianist's locomotive thrashing and the saxophonist's endless note placement isn't compromised by the ascending bed of synthesized sound. Ditto for "Red Worm", where Tim Berne on baritone saxophone and Parker on tenor come on like sci-fi combatants, lobbing loaded tone grenades at one another in front of a repetitive, doom-laded post-apocalyptic backdrop of echoing thumps and sonorous strums.

Other attempts are less impressive. For one thing, Maneri must strong arm a harsh, metallic viola timbre out of his highly-amplified instrument to pierce the fog of synthesized muck on "Coda", and it almost succeeds in burying every sleight-of-hand he tries. More seriously those "interludes" — titled or not — featuring Roy Campbell's muted trumpet or other subdued horns fade into near background music. Some tracks are too short, while others call more attention to SHJ's prestidigitation than the resulting product.

MASSES certainly deserves a listen by any far-sighted improv fancier who wants to follow one path the music may pursue. But it isn't the only way, and it also makes more tantalizing the hopes of a "live" meeting between Evan Parker and Shipp & Company.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Chorale 2. Chiaroscuro 3. Interlude 1 4. Masses 5. Cross 6. Salt 7. Medusa's head 8. Red Worm 9. Interlude 2 10. Coda

Personnel: John Coxon & Ashley Wales (electronics, samples [all tracks]); Ed Coxon (violin bass [track 2]) & George Trebar (electric or acoustic bass [track 2]) plus

Roy Campbell (trumpet [tracks 3, 4, 5]); Evan Parker (soprano saxophone [tracks 1, 4, 6, 8]); Tim Berne (alto and baritone saxophones [track 4, 7, 8]); Daniel Carter (flute, alto and tenor saxophones [tracks 2, 4, 9]); Mat Maneri (acoustic and electric violin [tracks 3, 4, 5, 10]); Matthew Shipp (piano [tracks 1, 4]); William Parker (bass [tracks 1, 4, 6, 9]); Guillermo E. Brown (drums [tracks 2, 4, 6, 9])