Oasis of Whispers
Alien8 Alien CD59

Don’t get this CD to discover how Sonic Youth guitarist Lee Ranaldo operates in a jazz/improv context. Unlike bumptious rock star tourists who venture into Free Music with the subtlety of a linebacker performing ballet, Ranaldo cedes most of the space to the reeds of Toronto’s Glen Hall and the multi-faceted drumming of New Yorker William Hooker. Sticking to low-key, near microtonal guitar fills, plus pre-recorded interjections, the guitarist makes Oasis of Whispers fundamentally a group effort – and the disc is better for it.

“Conference Call”, the CD’s almost 16½-minute centerpiece, is the most obvious example of how his unforced stance shapes the session. Triggered Film Noir-like pre-recorded dialogue from a tough guy, a woman’s muffled conversation plus an infant’s cries are treated appropriately as sound sources, connected sonically with slurred and frailing guitar runs, powerful cymbal resonation and bell ringing and Hall’s multi-instrumental theatricalism. Moving among wiggling, double-tongued soprano saxophone vibrations, mouth-breathed, irregularly pitched flute overtones and some mumbling of his own, Hall brings this layered piece to its conclusion with a descending flute line.

Most of the other group compositions reflect what electronic treatments and extended techniques can provoke. Framing the saxman’s repetitive reed biting, stark falsetto whistles and body tube white noise plus the drummer’s mallet popped cymbals and blunt bass drum pressure are buzzing wave form loops and reverberating guitar flanges.

Still, Sonny Rollins’ “Blue Seven”, featuring Ranaldo’s distortion pedal fills, Hooker’s kettle-drum-like resonation and Hall’s exaggerated tremolo tenor saxophone playing confirms the trio’s linkage to the jazz tradition, no matter how transformative the presentation.

— Ken Waxman