Louie 029

Seems Sometimes People Undergo Full Transformation
Solponticello SP 008

Wishing won’t make it so, is the homey maxim that the members of SS Puft may consider hanging on the wall of their practice space(s). For while the young Athens, Ga. band may consider what it creates as innovative avant chamber music, the end product sounds more like an uneven amalgam of jazzy ProgRock mixed with New Age conceits.

Expert free music results from more than merely allowing yourself and your friends to play as you feel, without considering how you fit within the jazz/improv continuum. That’s what separates the Puffs from the Tone Sharks of Portland, Ore. Although more overly mainstream, the Sharks not only have played together for a while, but also appear to have thought long and hard about how to define themselves in terms of other sounds and aggregations.

Centred in their community, which is musically best known for having produced the rock band R.E.M., each Puft seems to have a variety of other local projects on the go, whether it’s playing with bands in other genres, studying improvised music or (shudder) teaching jazz and theory. Right now the band’s most unique feature is the H’arpeggione of Erik Hinds. An 18-string, fretted cello/guitar hybrid named for the Norwegian Hardanger Fiddle and the Baroque Arpeggione, this guitar-shaped instrument has six main strings tuned in fifths and 12 sympathetic strings that can play quarter tones. It takes the place of a guitar or bass on the eight selections here.

Novelty is one thing, but unlike say, Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s use of the equally unique manzello and stritch, the H’arpeggione doesn’t seem to add many tones that couldn’t have easily come from standard stringed instruments. In fact, when all 24 strings in the band combine on some tunes, the results at times resemble those produced by a dulcimer in folksy New Age settings, or the sort of Westernized sitar playing popular in psychedelic raga-rock.

Then again, that sound may be more palatable than what’s exhibited on other tracks. On these the most prominent sounds come from drummer Blake Helton, who describes himself as a ProgRock aficionado, but who resembles someone who has just worked his way out of the Buddy Rich fake books to a modified Bill Bruford style; and trumpeter Jeff Crouch, who is studying with Wadada Leo Smith, but who proffers an adenoidal tone that appears to move between suggestions of Clifford Brown and the Tijuana Brass. Add some swirling, long-lined vamps from guitarist Colin Bragg and Hinds and a foot-tapping, but often overpowering beat and you may be reminded of discs by the rock-jazz fusion band the Dixie Dregs, that hailed from Georgia as well.

One hates to be excessively negative, however. It could be said that the music making on this disc is actually superior that on the band’s debut CD, LIVE AT EARTHSHAKING MUSIC (Solponticello SP 001-2). There, the excitement of working with Chicago alto saxophonist Dave Rempis, a member of the Vandermark 5, compounded the group’s already apparent weaknesses. Those tunes are stretched over two self-indulgent CDs’ lengths rather than the compact (sic) almost 65 minutes here.

SS Puft’s musical situation may soon improve even more. The band members are starting to play with visiting improv musicians and outside of their own bailiwick. Hopefully brushing up against advanced thinkers and stylists from elsewhere will change their music for the better. After all, the Beatles were one of the few bands made up completely of hometown players who succeeded. And even that foursome changed its drummer at one point.

If one of the adjective that comes to mind when describing SS Puft is “heavy”, then it’s “light” which best sums up the Tone Sharks’ appeal. That’s not light as in lightweight, but light as in nimble and airy. These 11 instant compositions with ichthyological titles don’t promise more than they deliver. But without trumpeting far-outness, the delivery is nearly faultless. With Portland almost as far out of the improv loop as Athens, the band members keep busy in a variety of local bands, many of which record on the Louie label.

Just as Puft’s Hinds runs the Solponticello label, the Shark Tones’ unpresuming drummer Dave Storrs is behind Louie and its affiliated recording studio. Storrs has also worked with everyone from local sax hero Rich Halley to Italian multi-woodwindist Carlos Actis Dato. Alto saxophonist Tom Bergeron is a professor at Western Oregon University and a member of Whirled Jazz with the drummer, while bassist Page Hundemer, a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College, also has many Louie sessions under his belt — or is that beneath his fingers? Most of the time here, by the way, it sounds like Hundemer is playing an electric bass rather than an acoustic one, but he doesn’t knock anyone over with Jaco Pastorius runs. Finally, guitarist Tom McNalley is new to the Sharks. But his agile Jim Hall-like facility combines fittingly on several tuns with Bergeron’s tone, that this time out seems to suggest unruffled soloists like Paul Desmond or Bud Shank in their younger days.

Probably the most impressive example of the band’s kinship comes on the penultimate tune, “Unchallenged”, whose title could sum up the improvisation here. Beginning with Storrs performing what sounds like a sand dance on his drumheads, this is followed by the bassist’s unvarying line, straight guitar chording and a simple theme exposition from Bergeron. With its strong groove and sequential entry of the players it suggest a hip jazz version of King Curtis’ old “Memphis Soul Stew” hit. As Storrs emphasizes the beat with his woodblock, McNalley expresses himself with light finger- taps on his strings. And before the saxman’s double-tongued excursion ends, it almost appears as if the guitarist is playing two axes at once.

More overtly experimental, on “Buoyancy” you can hear the guitarist’s fingers sliding up his strings and being matched with a subtle, shimmering rustle from what sounds like Storrs manipulating a berimbau. Later, exhibiting a clear cymbal sound and some gentle rim shots, the drummer mixes it up with the altoist, who appears to wheezing out stifled baby cries. Meanwhile the bassist’s moving bass line defines the rhythm.

Although there are points, as on “Falling Morsels” where it literally appears as if the band is trying to decide exactly how to approach the improvisation just as the tapes — or is it DAT machine now? — are turned on, most everything on that tune and elsewhere eventually slides almost effortlessly into place. Whether Bergeron, for instance, is playing legato or triple tonguing, and whether Storrs is introducing a simple ruff or a more complicated construction, each man instinctively seems to know just what to play — and how long to let solos runs. The band members can even handle swinging improvisations in waltz time without making a big thing of it.

Skill and experience go into making this all sound easy and the Sharks’ conception is something that could be studied with benefit by SS Puft. While the Tone Sharks aren’t really breaking any new ground — is there such a thing as middle of the road experimental music? — the band has unequivocally produced a pleasant, professional and memorable disc.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Intention: 1. First Intention 2. The School 3. Buoyancy 4. Bubbling Up 5. Flittering Sunfish 6.Lurking 7. Swimming Noses 8. Skates 9. Falling Morsels 10, Unchallenged 11. On Out

Personnel: Intention: Tom Bergeron (alto saxophone); Tom McNalley (guitar); Page Hundemer (bass); Dave Storrs (drums)

Track Listing: Puft: 1.Reunion 2. Just After 5 3. Just Suppose, Juxtapose 4. Blury 5. Put Your Grace in Your Pocket 6. World Waltz 7. Languish No Longer 8. Trance … Language

Personnel: Puft: Jeff Crouch (trumpet); Mike Hough (alto saxophone); Colin Bragg (guitar); Erik Hinds (H’arpeggione); Blake Helton (drums)