February 10, 2003
Screwgun Screwu 013
Just because many — most? — of the advances transmitted by jazz-rock fusion had been ground into formula by the early 1980s, doesnt means that there isnt scope for exploration with that mixture of highly amplified instruments and improvisation.
Fusion doesnt have to be what it has become — bass guitar grandstanding, drummers using more equipment than finesse, and onanistic lead guitar indulgences — as these two CDs set out to prove. Still its conventions are so strong that you can almost literally hear the musicians struggling to stretch the formula. Whether they prevail is open to interpretation and may depend on your history on the jazz or rock side of the fence.
Interestingly enough, while New York-based alto saxophonist Tim Bernes crew and Chicago located XMARSX led by tenor saxophonist Mars Williams tackle the conundrum in divergent ways, neither has room for a bass guitar. Jaco Pastorius rapid, empty posturing may have retarded the instruments growth for many years. Sure Williams has help from Kent Kessler, whose timekeeping would be familiar to the saxophonist from their mutual activity in the NRG Ensemble, Peter Brötzmanns Chicago Tentet and the Vandermark 5. But that bassman merely amplifies his acoustic bass in order to make himself heard, with a band filled out by improv cellist Fred Longberg-Holm and three rockers, most notably charismatic ex-MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, plus guitarist Greg Suran and drummer Dave Suycott of Slam.
Williams has worked both sides of the fence himself. Besides his improv experience, which also included Cinghiale, a reed duo with Vandermark, he was a sidemen with the Psychedelic Furs, Ministry and the Waitresses and now leads the jazz-funk band Liquid Soul.
Berne is firmly identified with jazz and improv, having over the years worked with the likes of saxophonists Julius Hemphill and John Zorn plus ROVAs Figure 8, guitarist Bill Frisell and drummer Joey Baron. Drummer Tom Rainey has been part of many bands with Berne and bassist Mark Helias; while keyboardist Craig Taborn has worked with saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and Bernes trio. French guitarist Marc Ducret has been associated with Berne for more than a decade, as well as gigging with countrymen like drummer Daniel Humair; and manipulator/processor/guitarist David Torn has been behind the console for Bernes last few CDs.
Starting in the Midwest, XMARSXs almost 15 minute Ultraman vs. Alienmetron seems to sum up how the rock and jazz impulses vie for primacy. One of the few times when it sounds as if Kessler is playing acoustic bass with an electric pick-up, the piece begins with the bassist and cellist bowing in unison with Williams. Suddenly, the tune explodes into a Bitches Brew-style bombast with everyone playing at top speed and volume. Williams pitch heads skyward, both plectrumists exhibit some Sonny Sharrock-style chops with heavy electronica overtones and a hint of Third-World exotica. Soon guitar feedback and altissimo screeches combine to become a claxon as one guitarist — Kramer? — picks out something closely resembling Purple Haze. For a time, it seems as if the 1960s have returned as both fretmen create a classic guitar freakout, with the saxist reprising the theme for the coda. Finally, a full minute of silence is brought to an end by telephone signal bleeps and the reintroduction of the thematic vamp played even louder then before. Anyone got a doobie?
In contrast, Unstuck — one of two Suran compositions — Punch the Monkey and Ratbastard stay in rock-jazz —as opposed to jazz-rock territory. Before the guitarist exercises his wah wah pedal, the first piece resembles the sort of instrumental heavy metallers would use to break up a set; the next features screaming guitar feedback and frenzied chording duking it out with sax lines. Most impressively, however, the third manages to incorporate country and avant influences into its basic rock structure. Beginning with a stuttering country guitar feel, fuzztones and off kilter drumming are soon added to the mix. Neither Williams chorus of reed kisses nor the integration of constantly intersecting guitar lines make it anyway MTV friendly, though.
Alternately, The Finger — written like all the rest of the material by Williams —sonically offers up the sort of riffs the saxophonist and bassist could play with Vandermark. Horn and cello team with a smoky jazz club feel, as Williams vocalized vamps recall Windy City funky saxist Gene Ammons. All the while Kessler is strumming a constant pattern and Suycott banging out a shuffle rhythm. In the end, reed tongue slaps meet guitar feedback, the way trace of psychedelica informed soul-jazz LPs of the 1970s.
Another Chicago reedman who was the epitome of soul jazz was tenor saxophonist Eddie Harris. Hes honored here on a piece bearing his name. Highlighting a slinky rhythm that moves the drummers flams to the foreground and the guitars to the back, the tune is given added heft by powerful bass intonation. Employing Harris favorite trick of constant theme repetition, Williams honks as if it was still 1969, while the ending takes another leaf from the EH songbook by reprising the head in double time.
If part of XMARSX references fusion halcyon days, then SCIENCE FRICTION, true to a variation of its title, tries to interpose even more influences into the genre. Traces of Byrds and Fairport Convention-style folk rock suggest themselves — though Ducret would never be mistaken for a folkie — and besides Torns electronica and cut-and-paste sound manipulation, Ornette Colemans Prime Time and Henry Threadgills Very, Very Circus bands join BITCHES BREW as an influence, as does so-called World Music.
The clearest indication of this is on the almost 12½-minute Manatee Woman — an Ornette allusion? Starting off with what sound like electrified percussion, it then encompasses rhythmic guitar licks, speedy hand drumming and Berne in a trilling R&B mode. Imposing here as he is elsewhere on the disc — Ducret sashays from a strict tempo rock vamp to simple flat picking — reminiscent of The Byrds Roger McGuinn — to an understated amp buzzing. Simultaneously Rainey is slackening and speeding up the theme and Taborns contribution varies from electrified keyboard splashes to dancing near acoustic-sounding piano glissandos.
Sigh Fry has the same sort of electric piano sprinkles mixed with diminutive trills from the alto saxophone. In this slow moving tune Rainey produces a straightforward rock band texture mixed with Cuban guiro-like scraping, while the droning electric guitar provides the countermelody.
Conversely, Mikromaus and The Mallomar Maneuvre appear to be as much Torns as Bernes solo statements. On the first the reedmans high-pitched lines seem to be filtered through processes so that shimmering clouds of sine waves intersect with a whistling flute-like sound. On the later, ethereal saxophone split tones and smears are distilled through stuttering phase-shifting.
Finally theres Clown Finger, which as you can tell from the sardonic title is one of the tunes Berne wrote or co-wrote. Its an allegro theme based on splayed electric piano notes and a twisting drum beat, often expressed on rims not heads. Soon all that is pushed aside by Berne and Ducret. With the lowest pitches of the saxophone getting a workout, the guitarist constructs light-fingered electric filigree with suggestions of a Neapolitan mandolin. Although Taborn is at his most melodic, his sustained low notes are hemisected by knife-sharp guitar chords.
There you have it, two attempts to reform fusion, give it a more outside character and bring it into the 21st century. Thought-provoking considering the sources, the CDs deserve to be weighed and considered along with both leaders acoustic works.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: XMARSX: 1. The Worm 2. The Finger* 3. Unstuck 4. Eddie Harris* 5. Punch the Monkey* 6. Ratbastard* 7. Floaty 8. Nothin Butnet 9. Ultraman vs. Alienmetron*
Personnel: XMARSX: Mars Williams (tenor saxophone); Greg Suran and Wayne Kramer* (guitars); Fred Longberg-Holm (cello)*; Kent Kessler (bass); Dave Suycott (drums, effects, loops)
Track Listing: Science: 1. Huevos 2. IHornet 3. Sigh Fry 4. Manatee Woman 5. Mikromaus 6. Jalapeño Diplomacy 7. The Mallomar Maneuvre 8. Clown Finger
Personnel: Science: Tim Berne (alto saxophone); Marc Ducret (electric and acoustic guitars); Craig Taborn (electric keyboards); Tom Rainey (drums); David Torn (processing and manipulation)