THE FOCUS QUINTET

1-8 IN 1
Sachimay sca 9357

THE ABSTRACTIONS Sonic Conspiracy
Edgetone EDT 4012

Each of these CDs features Bay area guitarist Ernesto Diaz-Infante and an improvising female vocalist. Other than that you probably couldn’t find two more different sessions that get lumped into the experimental/improvised music category.

Putting aside the ancient West Coast-East Coast dichotomy — The Abstractions hail from and recorded in San Francisco, the Focus Quintet is a New York band — the difference between the bands is more philosophical than musical. Directed by Dan DeChellis on piano and keyboards and featuring guitarist Chris Forsyth percussionist, Jeff Arnal and vocalist Anita DeChellis as well as Diaz-Infante, the East Coast ensemble, like much of the pianist’s other work aims for that undefined area between “free jazz and art song”, as he terms it. The Left Coasters, on the other hand, who include along with Diaz-Infante, saxophonist Rent Romus, Bob Marsh on vibes and violin, Scott Looney on percussion and vocalist Jesse Quattro plus a good collection of toys and odd instruments, aim to meld improvised jazz, thrash rock, electronics and surrealistic vocal textures. Each CD must be taken on its own terms.

Based on interaction between vocal tones produced by soprano DeChellis and the expansive soundfield of the four instrumentalists, 1-8 IN 1 was composed/improvised collectively and captures some fascinating sounds that can only be described as “pure music”. But while it may seem churlish to say so, a little of this goes a long way. Lacking dynamics, varied pacing and an expanded sound palate, deep listening to the eight selections for a shade fewer than 56 minutes often turns one into a clinician. You note the technique rather than the end product.

“Body” typified many of the instant compositions. Here DeChellis expresses herself wordlessly in what only could be described as a little girl’s voice, joined by intermittent percussion and cymbal taps, plus a sound that could be coins rolling on a drum head. Underscoring this is guitar string rumbling and consecrated organ-like sounds that gradually fade into silence.

Or take “Acknowledgements”, where squeaky vocal chords compete for aural space with internal piano rumbles then single keyboard notes in the highest register. As the singer’s breaths are expelled more as tones or sounds, something is heard that could have been produced by ripping paper, not to mention an extended electric guitar reverb resounding as if it was a malfunctioning amplifier. Words too seem to exist unconnected to phrases or sentences. As Arnal comments on the proceedings with unselected cymbals motions and scratches, Dan DeChellis produces low-pitched octave jumps and Diaz-Infante and Forsyth crackle, pop and clunk their guitar strings, Anita DeChellis exhale a word that sounds like “hide” and later spits out what could be “precious”

What ends up by the most pleasing performance is also the one that’s most sensuous, whether by accident or design. It begins with metallic scrapes and electronic outer space reverberations and squeaks probably produced with wetted fingers on drum skins. Soon Diaz-Infante (probably) whispers some “ahs” as Anita DeChellis warbles wordless falsetto lines on top of this. As the voices circle around one another, more lovers’ whispers are hard, then the female voice articulates “kiss”. There’s the unmistakable noise of a smooch, satisfied breathing, then “kick” is articulated. Whether this is a sign of appreciation or a decision to get kinky is left unconsummated, at least verbally, as one guitar’s amp buzzes and the other fingerpicks behind his bridge.

In duo with Arnal and in trio settings Dan DeChellis has produced some outstanding modern music. There is nothing musically “wrong” about this session either. It just seems that with the range of talent on board, there could have been more of a range of musical emotions than hushed reverence.

If Anita DeChellis whispers on her disc then Quattro, who is also a member of the thrash metal group Thrash of Killers, screams. Not that a good howl, vocally or instrumentally can’t be impressive as well. It’s just that The Abstractions seems to have set up shop at the opposite sound of the sound field to the Focus Quintet. Most tunes here are harsh, loud — and if you note some of the titles — probably snotty as well. Not only that, but with 18 separate tracks ranging from 36 seconds to more than seven minutes, many never get a chance to develop into anything more than the initial energy field.

Something like “4-wheeling waste - roam about as a vagabond” (whew!) seems to be set up as a race between Quattro’s vocal and the honking, reed-biting alto saxophone phrases of Romus, whose influences are described as “science fiction, horror literature, improvisation, Finno-Ugric music traditions and the inspiration of Albert Ayler”. The finish line reached, the piece just ends after little more than 1½ minutes. The less-than—two minutes title track suffers from this condensation as well, where saxophone lines meet metallic shimmers from what is probably Diaz-Infante’s prepared guitar.

The reason for that descriptive uncertainly is that the guitarist is also listed as playing piano, radio and “broken CD player”, Romus improvises on what are called “toys” and “sounds” as well. Meanwhile there’s percussionist Scott Looney, who not only mixed this session, but also on other discs with Romus and bassist Damon Smith, has shown himself proficient on melodica, prepared piano and live electronics. For example “Playground of Lost Souls - shields and arrows” features what could be electronic-produced waves lapping against the shore, with chainsaw-like buzzing metallic drones interruptions there to reflect the horror movie sounding title.

Meanwhile, veteran vibist/violinist Bob Marsh, leader of the Emergency String Quartet, whose other associates have included cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and clarinetist Gene Coleman, contributes on both his chosen instruments. “The Oval Office” — considering the range of noises, perhaps a political comment — features ghostly violin licks at first and concludes with string scratches. In-between are bangs on drums and bells and what could be the clanking of chains; squealing sax lines and tongue slaps; pseudo bongo drum percussion and yowling cat vocals. Or consider “Telephone - long distance”, where laid-back soprano saxophone trills meet low-key vibe shimmers until a growling electronics shriek — probably from Diaz-Infante’s guitar — interrupts with a discordant countermelody. Vibraphone and saxophone tones turn sharp to counter the cacophony caused by that and the rolling junk percussion rumbles.

Words figure in another couple of tunes, but seems to add more befuddlement than illumination. Stinging percussion and guitar lines frame what appear to be sampled voices repeating simple phrases like ” “bless you child”, “you can’t just walk around like that” and “just plain hungry” on the less than elegantly titled “don’t touch my shit”. Yet unless we’re supposed to interpret the combination of the voices, cocktail lounge style vibes and speech-like sax obbligatos as an auditory picture of the homeless, its purpose is moot. So too is “If Ornette askew Contankerous (sic) Insignificant Anti cacti”. Here, while the alto saxophone advances what could be a Tin Pan Alley standard, seconded by off-kilter piano and guitar chords, Quattro seems to spend almost the entire five minutes of the track mumbling to herself in a fashion popular among speed freaks and recent psycho ward residents. Finally a percussion and sax confrontation drowns her out.

Quattro, who maintains a membership in Mills College Contemporary Performance Ensemble, puts her grows, cries, yodels and screeches to better use on “Dinner with Blue Dragon @ Extending Claw Café”, the longest track. At times suggesting a rooster’s crowing and at others the victim in a slasher flick, her caterwauling lines up against trills from the saxophone, the occasional drum paradiddle, an electronic drone and steadily enveloping piano chords.

Dizzy Gillespie once said that with maturity a musician learns what to leave out, so perhaps these improvisers shouldn’t be faulted for youthful excesses. But it seems that dividing this hour plus CD into more balanced, longer, fewer tracks may have redefined it from a dog’s breakfast to at least a palatable fast food meal. The Abstractions appear to have attempted too much, too soon with its disc, while the Focus Quintet, lacking brighter shades in its musical colors tried too little. Both CDs are interesting in their ways, but mixing the approaches from both sides would have created one more impressive product.

Hey Diaz-Infante, is there any way you can induce your East Coast and West Coast friends to collaborate?

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1-8: 1. Dedicated 2. Foreward 3. Acknowledgements 4. Contents 5. List of Plates 6. Introduction 7. Body 8. Index

Personnel: 1-8: Dan DeChellis (piano); Ernesto Diaz-Infante (amplified acoustic guitar); Chris Forsyth (electric guitar); Jeff Arnal (percussion); Anita DeChellis (vocals)

Track Listing: Sonic: 1. Outfuck 2. Urban Gothic Hoedown 3. H-bomb transvestite infiltration bop 4. Dinner with Blue Dragon @ Extending Claw Café 5. On the hell bridge, meat market, torture process 6. don’t touch my shit 7. 4-wheeling waste - roam about as a vagabond. 8. Telephone - long distance 9. Sonic Conspiracy 10. If Ornette askew Contankerous Insignificant Anti cacti 11. hidden conversation – who’s sensitive here? 12. Playground of Lost Souls - shields and arrows 13. The file room 14.Your table is ready 15. The wisperer – american pictorals 16. Bloodsucker Money Bugs – glyph 17. Sodium Pentathalon – 400 loads 18. The Oval Office

Personnel: Sonic: Rent Romus (soprano and alto saxophone, toys, sounds); Ernesto Diaz-Infante (guitar, piano, voice, radio, broken CD player); Bob Marsh (vibes, violin, voice); Scott Looney percussion, toys); Jesse Quattro (vocals)