Magda Mayas/Damon Smith/Tony Buck

Spill Plus
Nuscope CD 1028

Transmit

Radiation

Monotype mono081

Properly tracking Australian drummer Tony Buck’s musical trajectory as he careens from one genre to another is as difficult as discovering a consistent path for Robert DeNiro’s screen appearances. Just as the DeNiro of Meet the Fockers has little overt resemblance to the DeNiro in the Deer Hunter, it’s a difficult to associate the austere free improvising percussionist on the Spill Plus trio disc with the hard-edged drummer, guitarist and vocalist [!] on Radiation’s quartet session.

Simply put, the drummer best-known for his long-time membership in The Necks’ so-called trance-Jazz trio, has during his decades as a Berlin resident, endeavored to expand musical definitions sometimes to his own detriment. Parts of each CD here confirm that. Other sequences are more palatable. Interestingly enough German keyboardist Magda Mayas, who is closely allied with Buck, likewise displays her dual musical personalities on these discs. The trouble is that again like DeNiro’s recent film roles, not only are the CDs so unlike as to almost seem like the work of different people, but especially on Radiation, it appears as if Buick and Mayas want to portray stock actorly characters that are in variance with their strengths.

As part of the Transmit quartet Mayas, who in the past has turned out exemplary experimental work with the likes of alto saxophonist Christine Abdelour and the Down Under Great Waitresses duo, is reduced to an outputting organ-like sweeps and judders. The pulses may fit in well with an Emerson, Lake & Palmer or Brian Auger revival group, but are remote from what is defined as Jazz. Meanwhile it appears as if bassist James Wellborn and drummer Brendan Dougherty, who too have some avant-garde bone fides, appear content to fade into the background as if they are Rock-band foot soldiers. The situation is dire enough on the first couple of cuts as what can only be described as Heavy Metal Jazz is on show. Among cymbal smacks, bass guitar thumps and keyboard undulations, there are unison drum beat that sound as if John Bonham and Bill Ward are collaborating.

But there are worse variations to come. Each of the next three tracks finds Buck as a vocalist, warbling folk-country lyrics that repeat rhymed banalities nearly endlessly and which are drenched with enough echo to make Phil Spector blush. Even odder is that these tracks plus the final “Who” seems to be aiming for more musical sophistication that they display. Among the unvarying Shadows-style Rockabilly guitar riffs, crushing percussion thunder and a mien that aims for dance club connections, are surprising sonic detours. Before the tune drowns in simplistic lyrics for instance, “Swimming Alone” is introduced by passages that link gamelan-like bell resonations and thin Chinese flute-like puffs; and those sounds appear in the final sequence as well. The reason for this simplistic excursion is unknown since Buck – and by extension Mayas – don’t move into the circles that could lead to pop stardom. But no one denies their right to experiment with that style, no matter how puzzling the results may be.

Happily, four years before this, Mayas using prepared piano, and Buck with drums and percussion, joined forces with then-Bay area bassist Damon Smith, to record a more noteworthy CD. Like a reverse of Dorian Gray’s portrait, the result is a in-the-moment example of prescient improvising

With Smith’s firm bass line sprawl encircling the others’ output like a ribbon on a ceremonial package, the keyboardist and drummer are able to explore parts of their instrument(s) that are neglected on Radiation. Buck’s irregular clanks and clamors discover enough gaps within the otherwise dense Mayas-Smith interaction to interject color tinctures and emphasis. Meanwhile besides plucking her inner string set as if it was an archery bow quiver, the pianist dredges textures from the lowest sections of her piano and often as on “Whisk”, bellicosely clanks discordant tones against one another as if they were mah-jong tiles.

Before the program wraps up with “Recline”, featuring a coda of string stretched whistles from the pianist plus guttural baritone-sax-like lowing from Smith’s string-set, the three participants have done everything but recline during the session. Crucially both Mayas and Smith are definitely percussive in their playing, while Buck, far distant from the rote smashing he exhibited on the other disc, sprinkles carefully modulated prods and accents throughout.

On “Diffluence” the pianist spends much of her time rummaging in the lowest ranges of her instrument so that it appears as if the capotes and strung back are as involved in the improvisations as the keys and strings. The exciting contrapuntal response to her further clavichord-like metallic clanks are crackles and smacks from Buck’s snares as Smith’s thick lines keep the narrative consistent. Meanwhile there are sequences in which Smith shows off his skills by slicing viola-like shills from his strings.

While in different combinations and partnerships every one of the players has created memorable discs in the past, Spill Plus is still an outstanding example of first-time, in-the-moment improvising. While the other disc evidently had a far different genesis and intent and different collaborators, one wishes it could reach Spill Plus’ standard.

—Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Spill: 1. Wake 2. Inkling 3.Whisk 4. .Perpetual 5. Diffluence 6. Recline

Personnel: Spill: Magda Mayas (prepared piano); Damon Smith (bass) and Tony Buck (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Radiation: 1. Vinyl 2. Two Rivers 3. Drive 4. Swimming Alone 5. Right Hand Side 6. Who

Personnel: Radiation: Tony Buck (guitar, vocals and drums); Magda Mayas (keyboards); James Welburn (bass) and Brendan Dougherty (drums)