June 23, 2003
MARK WHITECAGE & HIS VIRTUAL COMBO
Ducks on Acid
Acoustics ELE 415 CD
Adding electronics to acoustic instruments has clearly redefined the idea of solo-improvised performances. Loops, delays, processing and the like mean that, for example, an inventive woodwind player can now create as singularly as he wants or exhibit all the applications and more that you would expect from an entire reed combo.
Still, as the old record guys used to say in the pre-CD days, its all in the grooves. In other words no quantity of mechanics will improve the work of a mediocre player, while the truly inventive will go beyond standard electronic settings to add more than a gloss of modernity to their improvisations.
Two of this trio of solo discs uses electronic attachments. The third, by New York reedman Assif Tsahar offers up three solo selections that are as naked as the photograph of the swimmer on the cover — who may be the Israeli-American bass clarinetist and tenor saxophonist himself.
Each CD — the others are by Boston-based, Dutch saxophonist Jorrit Dijkstra and Jersey City, N.J. reedist Mark Whitecage — is a heartfelt solo expression. Luckily, as well, their many virtues intrinsically relate to the men tonguing their reeds rather than to the doodads amplifying their output(s).
Tsahar, known for his downtown sympathies in bands with players such as drummer Hamid Drake and bassist William Parker plainly designed his CD around the second of the three untitled tracks. At almost 34½-minutes, this tenor saxophone feature is bookended by two trilling, bass clarinet split tone explorations of at about six minutes each. Think of them as the appetizer and desert to the entrée.
Meaty as all get-all, this main saxophone course shows how chef Tsahar can prepare an entrée without any sous-chefs onside. Often heavy on the seasoning, he mixes up some altissimo reed squeaks, dissonant claxon suggestions, basso circular tones and —most appropriately — tongue slaps to spread over firm base of lightly accented notes in many patterns. Eventually these tone streams are succeeded by raggedly pitched blue notes, which begin to resemble human screams. A form of staccato (Middle Eastern?) blues, these shrieks bisect a speedy, jagged line which at times makes it sound as if hes playing Reveille from deep inside his horn.
As Tsahar varies his vibrations, he bites hard on his reed, producing a tone as elevated as a standing rack of lamb, spicing it up with a few lungfuls of pure squeak. Then, as his vibrato widens, he adds balladic seasoning to the recipe, echoing inflections within his cylindrical tube. After a last minute addition in a high, false register, he proffers his creation with a few tiny reed breaths for proper presentation. Done like dinner, this long improv is just as nutritious and notable as a well-prepared meal.
More contemporary, Dijkstra structures his solo session using the musical versions of the microwave and food processor — the lyricon, a pitch shifter and an analog modular synthesizer — as well as the equivalent to the traditional carving knife: his alto saxophone. Outside of a few outmoded concepts about pure improvisation nothing gets carved up however. Part of Amsterdams improv scene since the mid-1980s, Dijkstra has worked with such Dutch masters as saxophonist Willem Breuker and pianists Guus Janssen and Cor Fuhler, as well as collaborating with the Vancouver, B.C. band Talking Pictures.
On his own, the sax man uses electronics judiciously, unlike trendy foodies who would rely on an electric knife when a sharp straight edge would do. Thus his brandishing of the lyricon, a primitive synthesized saxophone developed in the 1970s. On Old Roman Road, for instance, he manages to produce short, elastic tones that wiggle out of the instrument, creating irregular vibrations, which, coupled with reed percussion, seem to replicate gamelan or bell-like sounds.
While he also takes advantage of the lyricons lyrical (sic) attributes, Dijkstra also uses the novel sounds it can spew out to contrast with his sax tone. Residence, for instance, features an echo meeting up with the altos lower register. With electronics providing the mechanized continuum, he shouts and growls through his horn, whistles in its top range and expels continues boar-like snorts from the bottom. Guitar, electric organ and cello resemblances also appear.
Hickory features the nervous tick created by a repeated, stuttering note, and, as the piece aims for staccatissimo, reed hiccups and scratched, yakety-sax tones vie for aural space with low register squeezes and smears.
Elsewhere the saxman comes up with a contrapuntal melody on one tune, with tongue slaps from one horn and legato lines from the other, then uses spetrofluctuation to comment on the proceedings. Still later, honks, key pops and brief unison legato lines play hide-and-seek throughout another theme, with Dijkstra alone coming across as ROVA or the World Saxophone Quartet.
Split-second electronic delay matched with a straight reading of the theme characterizes the expansive Linea Recta. Featuring breezy, electric piano-like glisses from the lyricon and more standard thematic material from other horns, the line gradually dissolves and become more abstract, like an instrumental reading of Alvin Luciers I Was Sitting In A Room. Referencing electric guitar treatments as well as the plugged-in piano, the tones eventually give way to the bubbling and snaps of unprocessed electronics.
If Tsahar ignores electronics and Dijkstra uses it for his own ends, Whitecage still seems to be experimenting. Granted that hes working with more primitive equipment — a pitch processor, delay and zoom, mostly triggered by his clarinet. Still, he appears to be more fascinated by the process than the result.
Throughout, theres little graininess or extended tonal manipulation in his playing; he appears to be playing legato for the sake of legato and natural so as not to upset the electricity. Yet this approach is an anomaly compared to the excellent work he does with other improvising musicians like bassist Dominic Duval and drummer Jay Rosen.
At times, using a 1960s synthesizer that runs on a 9-volt battery, he come up with a sound that seems to be a combination of a syndrum and a Pong game. Other times its as if Eddie Harris, one of the first saxists to plug in a Varitone, has returned to life. All and all, the buoyant output here is more novelty and much less assured than his acoustic work. Sure, he can create the sound of a clarinet choir and toss lines back and forth between a live horn and electronics, but so can many others.
The most embarrassing track is called DDs Acid Trip, where Whitecage uses his voice to create processed mumbles, retches and yowls that resemble the vocal cadences of Walt Disneys favorite fowl. New gizmos — to use his term — arent needed to capture this on disc. Like acid trips themselves, the idea would probably have been better off left in the 1960s.
About the only really memorable track is Transparency. Here the reedist seems to not only be able to dart in and out of the soundfield playing live and accompanying lines simultaneously, but use white noise as a backup. Theres even a point mid-way through where it sounds as if hes playing Sweet Betsy from Pike or another folk ballad. His variations on that theme show how he could eventually use his electronic set-up in a more sophisticated manner.
Whitecage has recorded many fine acoustic CDs with different bands, and as a player, hes someone who should be investigated on those sessions, rather than this attempt at solo electronics.
When it comes to electronics, 30 MICRO-STEMS is a far superior use of contemporary treatments, while AYN LE-ANY is a fine solo outing that will interest many woodwind fanciers.
— Ken Waxman
Track Listing: Ayn: 1. Ayn Le-any 1 2. Ayn Le-any 2 3. Ayn Le-any 3
Personnel: Assif Tsahar (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet)
Track Listing: Ayn: 30: 1. Contrapunt #5 2. 30 micro-stems 3. Koot 4. Residence 5. Faster than my shadow 6. Old Roman Road 7. Contrapunt #8 8. Hickory 9. Linea recta 10. Mind the gaps 11. Transducer (Contrapunt #14) 12. Carpet
Personnel: 30: Jorrit Dijkstra (alto saxophone, lyricon, electronics)
Track Listing: Ducks: 1. Oleo 2. Simple Entry 3. Snip-it 4. See No Evil 5. Synare samba 6. Lets Make Believe 7. Transparency 8. DDs Acid Trip 9. Pong 10. Morning Mood 11. Really Two 12. Oleo
Personnel: Ducks: Mark Whitecage (alto saxophone, clarinet, electronics)