XMARSX

XMARSX
Atavistic ALP138CD

TIM BERNE
Science Friction
Screwgun Screwu 013

Just because many — most? — of the advances transmitted by jazz-rock fusion had been ground into formula by the early 1980s, doesn’t means that there isn’t scope for exploration with that mixture of highly amplified instruments and improvisation.

Fusion doesn’t 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 Berne’s 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 instrument’s 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 Brötzmann’s 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 ROVA’s 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 Berne’s 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 Berne’s last few CDs.

Starting in the Midwest, XMARSX’s 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. He’s honored here on a piece bearing his name. Highlighting a slinky rhythm that moves the drummer’s 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 Torn’s electronica and cut-and-paste sound manipulation, Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and Henry Threadgill’s 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 Taborn’s 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 Torn’s as Berne’s solo statements. On the first the reedman’s 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 there’s “Clown Finger”, which as you can tell from the sardonic title is one of the tunes Berne wrote or co-wrote. It’s 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)