Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble

The Untenability of Sentience/More Wistful Tunes for the Sincere
Shih Shih Wu Ai Records 12/13

How much personal musical experimentation is too much? And what is the proper amount to present to the public? These are the questions that come up when dealing with sessions such as this one. What could be termed hard listening music; this two-CD set is actually one of the most accessible of the multiple discs put out by multi-instrumentalist Milo Fine and his often-changing Free Jazz Ensemble.

Proficient as a drummer, pianist, clarinetist, electronics and voice manipulator, Fine has been a singular proponent of Free Music from his Minneapolis, Minnesota-base since the late 1960s. Over the years he has collaborated with similar thinkers such as guitarist Derek Bailey plus a clutch of more local players including guitarist Steve Gnitka who functions as Tonto to Fine’s Lone Ranger. For the last several years Fine has been releasing sets like this on his own Shih Wu Ai imprint, with each individual CD around 70 minutes in length. That is where the initial questions come into play. Long-time experimenters who insist on pure improvisation such as Bailey and John Stevens’ Spontaneous Musical Ensemble in London or Toronto’s CCMC would get together frequently to experiment with novel ideas and concepts. Sometimes these free-for-all sessions were recorded. However if any of them were subsequently released on disc ruthless editing took place.

Unfortunately Fine doesn’t appear to hold to the same principles. Although throughout The Untenability of Sentience and More Wistful Tunes for the Sincere there are undeniable episodes of unfettered inspiration, sheer length prevents many of the sonic sparks from bursting into roaring musical flames. One doesn’t want to insult Fine, who is definitely self-aware, but pushing improvisations with all manner of asides until they finally dribble away, is often only exciting in a live context. When exposed to the harsh light of laser, unproductive paths and episodes that called for self-restraint are obvious.

That said the five UPC-code-like labeled tracks on More Wistful Tunes for the Sincere seem to offer more than the three similarly unimaginatively named ones on The Untenability of Sentience. Perhaps it’s that Gnitka’s guitar and Fine’s percussion, piano and clarinets are challenged and coordinated with the novel timbres from Scott Newell’s tenor saxophone and Stefan Kac’s tuba. Meanwhile on the other CD, when the textures of the Fine-Gnitka duo are minimally spelled by Charles Gillett’s guitar work the sonic picture doesn’t alter that much: Gillett’s playing in itself sounds like an extension of Gnitka’s style.

With low-pitched echoing brass slurps and contrapuntal splutters from the dual reeds being heard, and with Newell especially letting himself go into Trane-like approximations a couple of the tracks seem to brush against Free Jazz territory. There’s some assured horn vamping on “914092” plus some call-and-response. Additionally the saxophonist outputs a jaunty, low-key melody on “914093”, decorated by strummed guitar flanges. Tellingly the shaped improvisations that compare and contrast tropes such as tuba blasts, drum ratchets and crying reed doits and vibrations are on the CD’s three shorter initial track. Self-indulgence sounds its clarion call on the final more-than-30-minute number though. Newell’s initial burlesque vocalizing that is heard slightly off-mic earlier on, is later inflated into an extended shaggy dog story about UFOs and hotels. Spectacularly descriptive reed glissandi from both men and some novel pre-modern tenor lines that appear here lose out to the story telling however. Again the yarn might be a highpoint during a live date; on CD it appears extraneous.

A mammoth introductory track and two shorter ones, again all numbered as if they’re no more than bar codes, make up the August-recorded disc. And again it’s the shorter improvisations which offer more than the first almost 40-minute slab of improv. Especially impressive is Fine’s piano work on “87092”. Sounding as if he had prepared the instrument with suitable implements, his dynamic glissandi move with high-frequency chording, though the suspicion remains that a sly parody of avant-garde pianism may be his aim. The two guitarists’ chunky strums and harmonies move from foreground to background with aplomb, and impressively as well, finger-clicking flanges perfectly mate with electronic-warbling later on. Trebly strumming, clarinet shrilling and processed wiggles make an impression on the final track. As for the first it appears too minimal and without enough drama to justify its length. Strains of choked clarinet tones, clanking cymbals, clattering metallic and some spiky bottleneck guitar allusions pierce the ongoing exposition at points. But with many of the timbres seemingly unaffiliated and the odd drop out, buzzing and noodling define the final take away.

Despite different guests on hand, a few of Fine’s other sessions appear to be even less focused than these. So at least half – More Wistful Tunes for the Sincere – of this set is evidently a good introduction to his work. Fine’s modus operandi has obviously created an original niche. However perhaps he should seriously examine his recording process. If it isn’t too louche to suggest it, tighter, more controlled discs could offer a superior view of what he has attained musically.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: August CD: 1. 87091 2, 87092 3. 87093 September CD2: 1. 914091 2. 914092 3. 914093 4. 914094

Personnel: August CD: Steve Gnitka and Charles Gillett (guitars) and Milo Fine (m-drums II, bowed cymbals, piano, electric piano, voice and electronics) September CD: Stefan Kac (tuba); Scott Newell (tenor saxophone and voice); Steve Gnitka (guitar); and Milo Fine (drums, bowed cymbals, piano, Bb and alto clarinets)