Neon Truth
Black Saint 120217-2

More comfortable with contradictions than most North Americans, the French sometimes use the expression beau laide or “ugly beauty” to describe someone like Jean-Paul Belmondo who is not conventionally handsome, but is attractive none the less.

This concept, which also serves as the title of a Thelonious Monk composition, come to mind when listening to THE NEON TRUTH. Consisting of the abrasive sounds created when the harsh multiphonics of split tone sopranino and tenor saxophone mix with percussive noises from two drummers’ extended kits, beau laide seems particularly appropriate. With the strident qualities obvious, the beauty arises from skilful manipulation of this supposedly limited palette by top-flight musical stylists.

Take “Finn Crosses Mars” for instance. On it, saxophonist Larry Ochs begins by piling strident tones one on top of the other. Although his head references Sonny Rollins’ “East Broadway Rundown,” his tenor tone is deeper and harsher than Rollins’. Moving from elongated screeches and triple tongued, higher-pitched reed biting obbligatos to irregularly vibrated drones, the reedist’s glossolalia recalls the early days of the New Thing.

Meanwhile drummers Don Robinson and Scott Amendola rumble and rebound with bass-drum pedal pressure and heavy smacks on their doubled snares and toms. As one puts blacksmith-at-an-anvil weight on his drum tops, the other leaps from press rolls to ruffs to blows on the attached triangle. Like a classic soul singer such as Wilson Pickett, the saxist has the ability to temper his reed screams so that they sound several tones not just one. So the dual drummers respond with perambulating snare timbres and focused mallet pressure on ride cymbals. The whole thing is exhilarating but exhausting.

“Red Shift” offers more of the same at even greater length. There’s no doubt of the metal, wood and skin properties of the trap sets, as hi-hats, sizzle cymbals and ride cymbals quiver, and a collection of rolls, rumbles, smashes and bounces arising from the rest of the kit take on thunderstorm proportions. This squall could be deep in the verdant jungle, as the output from the two percussionists begins to resemble that of a disciplined troupe of African hand drummers. Additionally, closely linked reverberations make you focus on the sort of dialogue that talking drums promote.

If the drum duo is metaphorically performing in a sub-Sahara thicket, then the hornman is several camel rides north of them, creating reed tones with a Magrebian cast. Doubling and triple tonguing as if he was wielding a musette or a ney, Ochs resonates high-pitched tones from deep within the sax’s body tube. At times, his wavering timbres and piteous squeals even suggest the cry of a hungry child.

An internationalist, who years ago made a point to play in the former Soviet Union as well as throughout North America and Europe, Berkeley, Calif.-based Ochs is best known for his longtime membership in the experimental ROVA sax quartet. He has also worked with many other bands, some headed by the late saxophonist Glenn Spearman or Canadian bassist Lisle Ellis, the last two of which also featured Robinson. The drummer has played with local saxist Marco Eneidi and kotoist Miya Masaoka, who is also in a trio with Ochs. Amendola’s working situations have been even more varied, including stints with rock-influenced people like guitarist Nels Cline and keyboardist Wayne Horvitz.

This multiplicity of roots influences is probably why the musical universalism only goes so far. Sure, these and other tracks might find their germination in traditional chant singing from Asia and Africa, and in one Ochs sopranino line the singsong shtetel blues or Klezmer, but there’s plenty of American influences as well. A Native American-style pulse enlivens one track between drum ruffs and pealing bell tree sounds, while the power and raw energy of traditional blues shouters and chain gang harmonizers inform other tunes. Then there’s jazz. Part of Ochs’ sandpaper-like delivery come from the experiments of John Coltrane and he also has the knack of writing blues-like tune that display that sentiment without being formal blues, a trait he shares with Ornette Coleman.

Still the CD isn’t without faults. Lacking a chordal instrument there are times that the rhythms becomes too harsh and unyielding, making the ear yearn for some color and gracefulness to add to the rawness on display. In its defense though, the CD was recorded more than three years ago, before the three knew that the Drumming Core was going to be a regularly constituted unit.

With flaws THE NEON TRUTH is a good beginning. But the three must still work to overcome these early problems. Hearing how the trio functions as a band in 2003 should be very instructive.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Wrong Right Wrong 2. The Neon Truth 3. Give Me 209 4. Finn Crosses Mars 5. Xanic Rides Again 6. And Nothing But 7. Red Shift 1 8. Blues Keep Calling

Personnel: Larry Ochs (sopranino and tenor saxophones); Don Robinson (drums); Scott Amendola (drums)