Terra Incognita

Near Vhana
(Ninth World Music)

By Ken Waxman

May 24, 2004

Buoyed by appreciative, knowledgeable audiences, American improvisers have taken up residence in Europe for greater or lesser periods since the 1920s. The trend intensified after the Second World War when Bop-to-Swing stylists including saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Charlie Mariano, trumpeter Bill Coleman and drummer Kenny Clarke, among many others, moved to the Continent. Fusion and contemporary jazz’s neo-conservatism later forced experimenters such as drummer Sunny Murray, bassist Barre Philips and alto saxophonist Jeffrey Morgan to make similar trips.

Probably the least known of the group, Spokane, Wash.-born Morgan has lived in Cologne, Germany since 1991. Involved with interdisciplinary work as director, choreographer, technical designer and actor as well as with free music since the mid-1970s, he’s played with the likes of British guitarist Keith Rowe and the late German bassist Peter Kowald.

A multi-directional player like fellow West Coast reedists Bert Wilson, Wally Shoup and Vinny Golia, Morgan is open to many styles and procedures, as you can hear on these two CDs recorded in his adopted hometown six years apart. In 1997 the saxist hooks up with Joker Nies, a Dortmund, Germany-born real time manipulator and circuit bender for nine electro-acoustic performances that link his alto with Nies’ synthesizer, Midiotics and Omnichord as the duo Pair a’ Dice. Terra Incognita features some electronic impulses as well, but the chief fascination lies in hearing Morgan match wits and licks with veteran Free Music percussionist Paul Lytton.

Maybe it’s the years of different collaborations that have taken place since the earlier date, but Morgan sounds more comfortable with Lytton than with Nies. Additionally, most of the nine pieces on Near Vhana find the reedist adopting a searing, paint peeling tone that often lurches into dog whistle territory.

For his part, Nies’ weapons of mass dissemination move between autoharp-like strums from the Omnichord to alternating impulses that arise when he touches sensitive points on the live circuit boards with electrodes made of upholstery nails. Nies, who has also improvised with British saxophonist John Butcher and locals like trombonist Paul Hubweber, not only bends sounds manually, but uses a flexible, self-created, real-time MIDI-program as well.

Unlike some of the other pieces which seem to ricochet from Game Boy beeps, squeaks and growls to electronically oscillating thwacks and thumps, more impressive duo concordance appears on “Ten Spregs”. Here Morgan’s flutter tonguing and slurs reach such an epoch of multiphonics that it’s as if two saxophonists are playing. As Nies pumps out spacecraft-like blasts that downshift to bell-like tinkles and resonating electronic sounds, Morgan responds with waves of spiky, nasal overblowing, mixed with high pitched, diffuse squeals. Before he ends the piece with a honking split tone that is reminiscent of Peter Brötzmann’s free-for-all introduction to “Machine Gun”, Nies own tones are extended with whistling impulses.

“Cirey Jets” is designed as a face off between bubbling jaw harp sounds from Nies’ Omnichord and watery, glottal notes from Morgan’s sax. With a cauldron of synthesizer effects boiling underneath, the reedist turns to spetrofluctuation, irregular vibrations and obtuse flutter tonguing in the sax’s highest range to reify his humanity.

Elsewhere, Nies’ constant percussive timbres start to resemble the incessant drumbeats of the Energizer Bunny as Morgan’s tones divide between an ear-splitting squeal and an expansive basso drone. Real-time processing suggests retreating footsteps, ray gun ejaculations and looping arpeggios that turn to percolating pops. When that happens, tongue slaps and undulating squeaks from the horn give way to aggressive noises that suggest Morgan is eviscerating his axe with a blunt knife. These go beyond harshness to what sounds like solid, ECT-induced screams.

On the other disc however, Lytton, whose reed duet partners have included Chicago’s Ken Vandermark, as well as most consistently, London’s Evan Parker, trades licks with a Morgan whose playing has now moderated beyond the altissimo — or is it sopranissimo — vamps he often exhibited with Nies. Furthermore, most of this Anglo-American meeting takes place during the four-section title suite.

Beginning with “Tunneling”, Lytton’s understated exposition includes the gentle drubbing of plastic practice pads, rubbing resonating tones from what could be glass test-tubes and somehow appearing to resonate string pitches from his cymbals. Morgan’s refined response involves producing individual trilled notes and circularly breathed coos and slurs.

Subsequent brassy buzzes, watery Bronx cheers and falsetto, bird-like tones from the top of his reed’s range show that the saxist hasn’t altogether abandoned his aggressive attack. But the six years plus that have passed since the first CD have moderated brutality with other extended techniques. Cylindrical growls are now what he exhibits most. And they fit perfectly with Lytton’s chain rattling, top of cymbal rubs and bell pealing tones.

By the time the two approach the appropriately entitled “Cross Hatched”, Morgan is bouncing reverberations and irregular vibrations from deep within his horn’s body tube, the better to match the percussionist’s nail-against-the-blackboard rasps and those thwacks on his snare and floor tom’s sides. At points Lytton appears to be scratching on a güiro, at another instant rolling unidentified small instruments on the floor, and later still, spanking conga drums with callused fingers. Morgan’s responses are burr-like growls, irregular split tones and an episode where he seems to be breathing air in-and-out of the sax without touching the keys.

Climax of the suite finally arrives with Lytton apparently banging on everything within reach one stroke at a time — and that includes snares, toms and bass drum, a cow bell and what sounds suspiciously like a metal garbage can lid. Morgan’s response is an individual adaptation of Parker’s famous circular breathing technique, gutturally blowing and almost speaking simultaneously as sliding overtones extending his output.

Later, Lytton’s adoption of oscillating impulses on “Moth Wing Attachment” augments low-pitched resonation from the bass drum plus cymbal scrapes that turn the output into an assembly line of wavering tones. Unlike his frenetic response to Nies, Morgan takes this occasion to dissolve his sibilant timbres down to mere breaths. Growls, honks, squeals and overblowing only return to his vocabulary when the drummer creates an abrasive screech chord with a drumstick on his ride cymbal, then adds a steady clip-clop from his snare tops.

Overall it would seem that distance, maturity and increased playing opportunities are helping Morgan define the individual style he masterfully exhibits on Terra Incognita. Hopefully with the forceful improvising that he exhibits now internalized, the main terra that he will continue to be incognita won’t be North America.