Digital Wildlife
Winter & Winter 910 071-2

Ozzy Osbourne to the contrary, it’s still possible to forge a creative life as a former rock musician, just as long as you maintain your proficiency and inventiveness.

British guitarist/composer Fred Frith, 52, is living proof of this. Now professor of Composition at Mills College in Oakland, Calif., he’s arguably created more interesting music in the past 15 years as a free improviser than he did in his heyday as co-founder of cult bands Henry Cow and the Art Bears. Calling on the contacts he’s developed during his time in England and North America, he now moves from writing for dance, film, theatre and musical ensembles to playing in a wide variety of contexts. He works as bassist in John Zorn’s Naked City, violinist in Lars Hollmer’s Looping Home Orchestra, and guitarist for folks as different as The Residents, Brian Eno and in his own Guitar Quartet.

More to the point, as this innovative disc proves, he has the chops and production skills to gather musicians from different backgrounds together for a group exploration. Two of the players here fill out Frith’s Maybe Monday trio. They are Miya Masaoka, with a background in ethnic and New music, who plays koto and electronics, and Larry Ochs on sopranino and tenor saxophone, one quarter of the always-evolving Rova Saxophone Quartet, with his free jazz and free improv interests. The fourth member here is cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, who was for many years until recently, part of the Kronos Quartet that brought a contemporary sensibility to the stuffy string-quartet world.

Basically, with each of the participants a veteran group collaborator, the idea of DIGITAL WILDLIFE seems to be to allow each player to do what he or she does best and tie up what results into a package of group improv. Thus during the course of the five tunes, you’ll hear echoing Art Rock guitar runs, the gentle raindrop of koto chimes, free music sax trills and slap tonguing plus snatches of legit cello tone.

However that isn’t all that happens. For one, the quasi power-chording is as apt to come from Jeanrenaud’s cello as Frith’s guitar, while Masaoka spends a lot more time coloring the proceedings with electronic swooshes and pseudo-percussion than studiously plucking the koto’s 13 strings. Ochs, who has contributed memorable solos to bands led by the late saxophonist Glenn Spearman and bassist John Lindberg, often moves from raucous New Thing reverberation on tenor sax to delicate pure improv sonority on sopranino.

On “Touch I Risk”, for instance, Frith’s notes suggest both Spanish flamenco guitar and South Asian sitar, while Ochs’s solo is consumed with breathing out miniscule, almost inaudible note patterns. If Jeanrenaud’s uniform bass string patterns bring to mind rhythmic strokes from the washboard in a jug band, then the koto strings adorn them with a spring shower of notes.

“Image In An Atom”, on the other hand, finds heavy metal guitar riffs and The Who-like amp buzzes fighting for space besides sopranino sax squawks, the rumble of electric tones and bow scratches from beneath the cello’s bridge. Later, as Ochs continuously works on a particular mathematical sax pattern, reverb buzzes and waxing and waning electronics allow Jeanrenaud to scrutinize all parts of her instrument, even pausing at one point to produce a so-called classical chord. With every axe exhibiting extended technique, you’re not sure whether this tune should be regarded as a vain attempt to contact E.T. or as cleanup time in recital hall.

Elsewhere the noisy crash of an e-bow intersecting with strings can be heard, though whether it’s doing its job on guitar, cello or even koto is hard to ascertain. What is definite however is the gun-shot like pitches Masaoka gets from her 13 strings as Frith undulates reverberating notes up and down his guitar neck. At times — shades of ELP (!) — it appears as if someone is playing a mellotron, followed by the sounding of a high-pitched, Arabic, musette-like tone. Later Frith and Jeanrenaud combine their 10 strings to give Ochs a shimmering filament on which to bounce his repertoire of squeaky pitches.

Although Frith like Osbourne is married with a couple of kids, don’t expect to see his family featured on MTV any time in the near — or far — future. Instead expect him to create more outstanding CDs such as this with these accomplished musicians and others.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Digital Wildlife 2. Image In And Atom 3. The Prisoners’ Dilemma 4. Touch I Risk 5. Close To Home

Personnel: Larry Ochs (sopranino and tenor saxophone); Fred Frith (guitar); Joan Jeanrenaud (cello); Miya Masaoka (koto, electronics)