OKURA/KAWASAKI/AKIYAMA

Bject
Hibari Music 02

CHAINWORKS
Red Room
Sachimay sca 9358

Novelty instruments have been around as long as the existence of improvised music. Red McKenzie was able to produce some memorable sounds from comb and tissue paper in the 1920s, around the time Adrian Rollini was taking solos on the goofus and the hot fountain pen. Yusef Lateef recorded an LP featuring a percussion section of balloons and 7-Up bottles in the 1950s, while Steve Beresford’s collection of toys and Eugene Chadbourne’s electric rake have been showcased more recently.

Consequently we shouldn’t be surprised that some of the most distinctive sounds on BJECT come from the rolling reverberations of alto saxophonist Masahiko Okura’s bass tube, and Tetuzi Akiyama, who is nominally a guitarist, plugging in his air duster. Considering that the former has a background in techno-noise and loud jazz-rock and that the latter knows avant-garde improvised classical music and free improv noise, the history of novelty instruments might have escaped their notice. But their anything-goes approach, amplified by the textures of Utah Kawasaki’s analog synthesizer, appropriately typify one method of performing free music with an electronic base. Akiyama, whose improv history goes back to 1987 and who works with guitarist Taku Sugimoto and Kawasaki in another trio, exhibits his skills with turntables and electronics here as well.

Serendipitously, a month after these two tracks were recorded at Tokyo’s Off Site concert space in April 2000, three American musicians of totally different backgrounds were exhibiting their take on electronics in a live session at Baltimore’s Red Room. Chainworks, their band, is built around the keyboard excursions of New York’s Dan DeChellis, who has adapted his extended techniques to sounds that bleed through the barriers that separate so-called jazz and so-called classical music. A collaborator with the keyboardist in the latter’s Focus Quintet, percussionist Matt Hannafin is interested in non-metrical rhythmic structure. Moving in the fields of both free improv and traditional Iranian music, he plays the Persian tombak drum as well as selected and unselected cymbals and the standard drum kit. Electronics manipulator Brian Moran is part of the intermedia trio Nneng, creates live audio and video improvisations with video technicians, and has also played with other DeChellis associates such as drummer Jeff Arnal and guitarist Chris Forsyth.

Although it’s meaningful to itemize the many dissimilarities between the trios — and to praise both for originality of conception and intonation — it’s illuminating to consider what tone images are now so much a part of the musical gestalt that the two geographically distant bands could easily work the same venue without disquiet.

Beginning in a much quieter space than Chainworks inhabits, Okura, Kawasaki and Akiyama initially build their soundfield out of repetitious electronic rushes and synthesizer drones. Okaura’s reverberating blasts of rolling spit from his bass tube introduce a small concerto of ear-splitting squalls. This is amplified by the abrasive scrape of metal against metal; what could be a sidewalk drill splitting concrete, but is probably a stylus tracking a turntable groove; and the hushed near-silence experienced when you “hear” the sea by holding a sea shell to your ear.

“Big Comic”, an even more extended track at more than 33½ minutes, contains more robotic tones. Using what appears to be the unvarying buzz of a turbo engine as an leitmotif, other sounds surface then submerge from the swirling soup of the improvisation. Besides the now expected shriek of metal abrasion you hear what could be the sound of a dentist’s drill — the air duster perhaps? — sped-up turntable rumble, a sharp object percussively hitting another — the stylus and turntable again? — a shrilling whistle, chipmunk scratches and dog howls, some unexpected mixed choir harmony — straight off the radio dial — and an attempt at tuning this static-attached radio. As the drone moves from high-pitched to subterranean and from foreground to background, all sound seems to vanish down an aural drain, leaving a very brief tuba-like blast, silence, and then another blast for a coda.

Mesmerizing in its concept of pure sound, the trio may take some of its inspiration from a variety of sources. There are Sugimoto barely audible projects with Japanese and Occidental musicians and Kawasaki’s duo with Ami Yoshida who wants her creations to be perceived as sound itself rather than as vocalization. Of course, the ideas of British band AMM, which has pursued the idea of drone plus non-idiomatic improvising for more than 30 years, hovers over the set.

AMM’s influence makes itself felt with Chainworks as well. DeChellis, especially, during his period in Boston, was closely involved with many performers whose minimalist approach drew on that band, as well as the ideas of local iconoclasts such as pianist Ran Blake and reedist Joe Maneri.

On the three untitled tracks here, that together add up to just under 38 minutes, the AMM suggestion is more pronounced than it is in Tokyo, since this trio shares two instruments — percussion and keyboard — with the Brits. However DeChellis, who has his own unique style, has a different approach than AMM’s John Tilbury. Tilbury’s motif involves bursts of arpeggios then silence, DeChellis is much more likely to advance single note octave patterns, treble and bass congruence with the adjacent overtones. Almost at the disc’s end after theme snatches have appeared, in fact, there’s even the barest hint of piano boogie woogie, buried underneath the crunch of distant cymbals.

Additionally, Hannafin’s percussion accents do take in techniques from jazz, non-Western and contemporary classical sources. When DeChellis unrolls a melody on what sounds like an electric harpsichord, he exercises his hi-hat and ride cymbals. Elsewhere, to cut through the sound of Morton’s bed of buzzing electronic impulses, it appears as if Hannafin uses mallets on his attached cymbals and rolls smaller, unattached ones on the ground, benefiting form the echoing vibrations. Other times faced with the warbles and twists of the mixing board-produced intermittent drones, he scrapes skins and metal as if he was using a Zydeco rubboard. The unique tombak rhythm probably make an appearance as well.

On the second and longest track, the three mix it up with even more unusual sounds. Turning from straightforward arpeggios, the keyboardist adds unexpected runs that recall some of Sun Ra’s outer-space excursions. Morton’s door-creaking, rumbles and smacks surround all this, resolving themselves as asymmetrical buzzes. But who is it producing what sounds like the clink and clank of manual typewriter keys?

Eventually DeChellis gets animated enough to sound out a short theme from the electric piano, that is dependent on trebly, bended notes so higher-pitched that it almost appears as if he’s using a toy piano keyboard. In response Hannafin brings various noise makers into play as drumsticks, brushes and mallets are manipulated and moved about on top of drum skins, until the sound dissolves.

Putting it all together, it appears that novelty noise makers and electronics can coexist to produce some memorable sounds, just as long as real instruments aren’t neglected. The two trios here have categorically proven that with these CDs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Bject: 1. Business Jump 2. Big Comic

Personnel: Bject: Masahiko Okura (alto saxophone and bass tube); Utah Kawasaki (analog synthesizer); Tetuzi Akiyama (turntables, radio, air duster and electronics)

Track Listing: Red Room: 1. 10:46 2. 16:38 3. 10:32

Personnel: Red Room: Dan DeChellis (piano, keyboards); Brian Moran (electronics); Matt Hannafin (percussion)