JOHNNIE VALENTINO

Eight Shorts in Search of David Lynch
ToneScience TS 7002

Sort of a modern day Thomas Alva Edison, Los Angeles-based guitarist Johnnie Valentino takes a practical approach to the somewhat esoteric concept of sound design. True to the functional philosophy of the Wizard of Menlo Park, Valentino mostly uses manipulated sounds in his day job, scoring and providing sonic textures for animated TV shows and feature films.

This CD is another matter, however. It’s a high art application of his collection of found sounds far removed from the tone designs he provides for sci-fi and children’s products such as Alvin & The Chipmunks, The New Archies or Wonder Boys. It proves that a musician with ingenuity can compartmentalize his creations, using some for art and others for commerce.

An Easterner like Edison, Valentino has been operating like this for years. A Philadelphia native, he studied privately with Dennis Sandole, John Coltrane’s teacher, as well as taking composition at Rutgers University while doing local club dates, recording sessions for Philly World Records and gigs in Atlantic City. In L.A. since 1984, he’s recorded with top improvisers like guitarist Pat Martino, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and multi-reedist Vinny Golia, the last of whom is featured on three tracks here.

Essentially, EIGHT SHORTS is made up of the musicians playing live in the studio using Valentino-created abstract sound beds as springboards for improvisations. As can be expected from the title and his background, the results are cinematic, but mostly in an experimental un-Hollywood fashion, all the way down to titles. As the guitarist says, “If you don’t like the names of the tracks, make up your own”.

Especially memorable is a track like “Unveiled”, a duet for Golia’s flute and Valentino’s guitar, seemingly suspended bird-like over raunchy thunderclouds and bubbling forest streams. In between fripple manipulations and offbeat chording, the soundscape brings up growls, yelps and other potential wild animal tones and a coda of dripping water.

Other CD helpmates include such certified New York downtowners as cellist Erik Friedlander, known for his work with John Zorn; drummer Mike Sarin, who has been part of bands led by bassist Mark Helias and pianist Myra Melford; and trumpeter Russ Johnson, co-leader of The Other Quartet. Then there’s pianist and percussionist Mick Rossi, who employers have included trumpeter Dave Douglas, composer Philip Glass [!] and soft-rockers Hall & Oates [!!].

Rossi’s dual skills are put to good use in pieces like “Vessel”, where wheezing background textures, sometimes extended with muezzin-like cries and what could be rooster crows feature non-specific pitchsliding brass tones. Moving between keyboard timbres and stopped internal piano action, the pianist gives Valentino additional accents on which he can prop his metallic finger picking and scattered amp loops, scattering and shattering fluttering found sounds.

Friedlander’s contributions encompass legit glissandi and song-like spiccato episodes. The soul of modesty, Sarin mostly confines himself to scattered cracks and knocks and off-centre rambling beats, while Golia’s buzzing bass clarinet, provides alternating swelling and wavering backdrops for low-key pianisms mixed with discursive side band tones.

Johnson offers plunger work seemingly unfazed by pulsating waveforms of droning buzzes and corkscrew mutations at one point, or screeches out brassy triplets over pedal point tuba sounds– from Randy Jones – cymbal splatters and uncommon bounces from Sarin elsewhere. This whirling brass line gives Valentino a context in which to display rock-style guitar reverb.

Picturesque can only go so far with shorts, whether they are cinematic or sonic, as other tracks show. As well, a couple of tunes could have been left on the cutting room floor.

Especially unfortunate are the two – or is it one? – which feature wordless vocals from Elissa Lala. While vocal sounds almost mesh with eastern-inflected flute textures and sampled tabla sounds on one track, the other tune is virtually engulfed in shapeshifting sidebands that resonate with thunderous wave and seagull sounds. Low-frequency piano chords and chromatic trumpet lines may gently complement one another as does the whispering vocalese, but when finger-style guitar is added to the mix the result is too syrupy. Middle-of-the-road orchestral fluff featuring Earl Klughish guitar licks may work for a romantic love scene on screen, but this audio-only output is too cloying when compared to the advanced sound work Valentino exhibits elsewhere.

Perhaps these shorts won’t find David Lynch. Perhaps they shouldn’t. Most of the way through this CD however, the guitarist has produced intelligent, practical, sound designs with that can be appreciated as is, without visuals.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Ambiguity 2. Exploration 3. Under Current*+# 4. Components 5. Vessel^~$ 6. Verge^ 7. Unveiled 8. Concrete Irrationality$

Personnel: Russ Johnson (trumpet) [tracks 2, 4, 5, 8]; Randy Jones (tuba) [track 2]; Vinny Golia (bass clarinet, flute) [tracks 3, 6, 7]; Johnnie Valentine (guitar, ukulele* and mandolin*); Mick Rossi (piano^, prepared piano~, drums$, percussion+ and tabla samples+); Erik Friedlander (cello); Mike Sarin (drums); Elissa Lala (voice)#