December 1, 2014
Hopscotch Records HOP51
One dictionary definition of primitive is “being the first or earliest of the kind”, whereas digital can be defined as “available in electronic form”. Consequently you come to the underlying impetus for this trio, which disseminates in the most contemporary manner sounds produced by acoustic instruments, some of which pre-date modernity.
While that description may make the Digital Primitives sound affectedly retrograde, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the group, which has been together on-and-off for a decade or more, consists of three of the world’s busiest improvisers. Israeli-born Assif Tsahar, who plays tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and m’bira, here spent years in New York working with the likes of William Parker before resettling in Tel Aviv. Drummer Chad Taylor, best known for his affiliation with many Chicago Underground projects, lives in Jersey City. While New Yorker Cooper-Moore, otherwise an erudite piano explorer, here works out on the most primitive of the instruments: diddly-bo, twinger, mouth bow and fretless banjo.
At the same time while primitive sounds may be naturally earthy and striking, it doesn’t mean they’re basic. Despite the instruments of choice, the trio is as capable as advancing gently rhythmic swing and complicated avant-garde formulas as easily as it sets down a bedrock soul searchin’ beat. There are no electric organs or electric guitars to be heard on both CDs’ lead-off tracks: “Beastit” and “Grassblare”. But combining honking R&B-style saxophone, a back-beat powerful enough to knock down a weight-lifter plus crunching strums from various string instruments, a dance party atmosphere is expressed and bolstered.
Cooper-Moore’s command of his string instruments is such that on “Lipsomuch” he can whump them as if he was playing a bass guitar, then turn around on “Spyzee” to sound out a shaky melodic pulse that owes as much to Reggae as the Blues. On the same tune, Taylor craftily doubles the time, while Tsahar’s sax confidently twists and turns reed expressionism around the theme. The three even add a 1950s Latin Bop feeling to “Luminous Gnomes” with Cooper-Moore and Taylor replicating clave and conga pulses. Other tracks spin out more straightforward narratives where near-mainstream reed work and jittery drum accents are scarcely affected by a third part that emanates from a so-called primitive instrument; or mate balladic tones from a bass clarinet with a close approximation of sitar resonations. “Talking in Tongues” even demonstrates how a profoundly moving melody can be created primarily from idiophones of slapped cymbals, plucked m’bira and angled string bowing.
“Flat Footing” may be the two-CD set’s defining track however. With the saxophonist using extended techniques from growls to near-silence to stretch the theme without breaking it, Cooper-Moore shores up the performance with string rhythms that sound as if they’re coming from two guitars at once, while his hand pumping makes it seem as if two drummers are on hand as well
The definition of primitives may have to go through a transformation, following the dissemination of the highly developed music and playing on these discs. Luckily the digitical recording captures it with modern techniques.
Listing: Lipsomuch: 1. Beastit 2. India 3. Eye Perceives 4. Ballad for Butch 5. Lipsomuch 6. Spyzee 7. Flat Footing 8. Hardboil 9. Crumbles 10. Drunken Fools. Soul Searchin’: 1. Grassblare 2. Ol’ Blu 3. Soul Searchin’ 4. Spider's Sap 5. Intertwined 6. Wobbly Mind 7. Talking in Tongues 8. Sun Stones 9. Luminous Gnomes.
Personnel: Assif Tsahar (tenor saxophone, bass clarinet and m’bira); Cooper-Moore (diddl-bo, twinger, mouth bow and fretless banjo) and Chad Taylor (drums)