WILLIAM HOOKER/ROGER MILLER/LEE RENALDO

Out Trios Volume One
Atavistic ALP146CD

JEFF PARKER/KEVIN DRUMM/MICHAEL ZERANG
Out Trios Volume Two
Atavistic ALP147CD

Like the dexterity needed for ventriloquism, improvising electro-acoustically often appears to be simpler than it actually is. If you know your instruments, and if you have the right electronic equipment, the reasoning goes, properly mixing and matching the two soundsources to a memorable conclusion shouldn’t be too difficult.

The key word here may be properly, as many less than stellar electro-acoustic CDs attest, and it may also be the reason why neither of these collaborations makes it into the top rank. Similarly, accumulated factors results in one session being notable, while the other, surprisingly, is almost instantly forgettable.

VOLUME TWO of the so-called out trios is the keeper here, while VOLUME ONE falls by the wayside, despite having similar instrumentation and being about the same length. The devil is likely in the differences as well as the details, since the CDs were recorded about one month apart.

Two-thirds of VOLUME ONE’s New York-based musicians have a post-rock background: guitarist Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth and bassist Roger Miller from Binary System. Only drummer William Hooker, a partner of veteran free players like violinist Billy Bang and saxophonist Glenn Spearman is a non-rocker. In contrast, VOLUME TWO’s guitarist Jeff Parker and percussionist Michael Zerang have played with just about every free player in Chicago from saxophonists Fred Anderson and Ken Vandermark to drummer Hamid Drake and cornetist Rob Mazurek. Only synthesizer man Kevin Drumm is outside the jazz/improv orbit, but he has still traded licks with Vandermark and others on the scene.

VOLUME TWO is divided into four long tracks providing the trio members with different sections within which they try out various approaches. VOLUME ONE is a single, shade-over-49-minutes track. It was also recorded live in a New York club, an atmosphere that frequently encourages grandstanding and self-indulgence. VOLUME TWO took place in a Chicago recording studio, with seemingly enough time left for reflection and self-examination among the musicians.

Nevertheless you shouldn’t assume that the Chicago trio members have created an electro-acoustic milestone. Only on the final track do they seem to produce something outstandingly musical. Here harmonic keyboard chording, wiggling marimba-like beats and slow-moving guitar fills mesh into a whole that references instrumental virtuosity as much as circuit wizardry.

However, too many of the tones on other tracks appear to be there precisely because they can be mechanically generated. The novelty of crackling static, bubbling squeaks and oscillating burps pales after a while. And although it’s fascinating to speculate, for instance whether it’s Zerang’s dumbek or some other percussion trickery that’s creating what sounds like a metal comb being dragged across a hard surface, or if it’s a whack on an aluminum pie plate, one could be a satisfied with customary percussive textures. Hammering away at his drum tops as if they were anvils, Zerang’s able to shape rumbles, rattles and bangs into identifiable percussion color that link to the others’ output.

These include Parker using his distortion pedal to reverberate Hendrixian guitar runs and surf band rumbles that finally reconfigure as descending flat-picking. Or when the guitar feedback finally defines itself as a product of flailing guitar tones, rather than the sort of oscillating squeaks and chirrups that could arrive with a video game.

Drumm’s contributions are presumably those futuristic industrial noises and heavily mechanized sine waves that add burbling whistles, beeps and static to the proceedings. Sometimes these dense drones catapult across the soundfield in such a way that they suggest a laptop booting up, an car motor turning over, or a jackhammer.

With their rock-associated instrumentals, Hooker, Miller and Renaldo, on the other hand, sometimes seem as if they’re recreating Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper’s 1968’s SUPER SESSION. The main difference appears when Miller feeds pre-recorded samples of a child crying and a woman complaining to a call-in host to the audio mix. But this respite seems to spur Hooker to intensify his already near-overpowering drumming and the other two to come up with distorted lead guitar feedback and a swaying electric bass line.

Before this, stuttering guitar chords, whistling amps and bass drum pummeled with enough strength to hammer railway ties, have been recurring leitmotifs. Rumbling bass lines, some tambourine color and a few vocal cries also are more upfront than any reflecting loops or irregular buzzes created by the electro-acoustic equipment.

Calmer, quieter tones predominate after the auditory samples as well as a few seconds of silence. But even then the heavy metal echoes don’t so much abate as become more diffuse and ghostly until the rumbles and shuffles fade away.

Describing either of these bands as out trios depends on your point of view. Whatever you call them, more electronic aptitude would appear to be necessary so that the members, not the machines are in full control.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: One: Monsoon

Personnel: One: Lee Ranaldo (guitar, effects and small devices); Roger Miller (bass with electronics and loops, guitar, samples through keyboard); William Hooker (drums)

Track Listing: Two: 1. 15:52 2. 6:45 3. 12:38 4. 10:17

Personnel: Two: Jeff Parker (guitar and analog synthesizer); Kevin Drumm (guitar, effects and synthesizer); Michael Zerang (drums, percussion and autoharp)