Rent Romus / Dave Mihaly

February 15, 2002

Avatar In The Field: A Tribute to Albert Ayler

Edgetone Records EDT 4001

With music that rappels from the New Thing to skewed mainstream jazz to horror and sci-fi pastiches to skronk and back again, Bay area saxophonist Rent Romus is certainly carving a distinctive musical niche for himself. He’s also a one-man cottage industry, organizing tours in North America and overseas for his many band projects, booking a couple of California music series, participating in multi-media happenings, producing CDs, helping in the marketing of another jazz label, and running his own Edgetone Records.

Frenzied activity appears to agree with the young reedman though. For on the evidence of the music on these sessions, he’s thriving rather than spreading himself too thin, even with his patented B.I.A.C.S. (bull in a china shop) approach to improvisation.

Each disc here exposes some part of Romus’ game plan. AVATAR is his quartet’s take on the music of Albert Ayler; PKD VORTEX, with an almost completely different quintet is a musical tribute to science fiction writer Phil K. Dick; and BLOOD is a trio effort recorded with young Danish musicians.

Consider the first disc, made up of five Ayler so-called standards plus band originals — mostly by Romus — in the same style. The result of eight years of Ayler immersion, Romus et. al have tried to bring their own perspective to the music, and don’t even play “Ghosts”, the late hornman’s greatest hit (sic).

Using a full fruity tone with a vibrato that’s almost broader than Ayler’s, Romus blends his saxophones, sometimes played simultaneously, with Toyoji Tomita’s trombone. Moving from reverberating tailgate tones on Romus’ “Aces for Albert” tribute and other tunes to little bleeps of sound that seem to come right from the high inside the instrument’s bell on “Vibrations” and elsewhere, the slide man serves as a perfect foil for the saxophonist.

Although bassist Bill Noertker doesn’t appear to step forward for more than a bar or two anywhere on this set, his Latinesque “V/F Bright and Noble” is a light swinging line hoisted upwards by Tomita’s low continuo and Romus’ honking, smearing take-no-prisoners approach. It certainly gains the approval of an audience made up of alt-music fans. Strongly in the background throughout, Dave Mihaly makes the greatest impression with his death march-like drumbeats on “Snow Ghost”.

Still, Romus is chief Lord here. He brings out his piccolo when he’s not manipulating one sax or another through key pops or slap tonguing, or spends time spinning out a child-like theme on the soprano. Elsewhere, he’ll verbally explain bit about his passion for Ayler to the audience, and scream, rage and shout to keep the momentum building. Finally his eviscerating alto tones and Mihaly’s bell blasts help turn Ayler’s “Our Prayer” into a sing along

Romus and Mihaly were joined by electric cellist Doug Carroll, guitarist Joel Harrison, and most spectacularly, Tom Nunn’s electro-acoustic “inventions” for PKD recorded nearly two years earlier.

Appropriate cadences for a project honoring the pioneering sci-fi author, Nunn’s spectral sounds provide the underpinning for much of what happens here. It’s especially noticeable on “March of the 80 foot Phils”, where it pulsates in the background while the foreground is occupied by a screeching, tenor-range saxophone solo from Romus. Earlier, a quasi-military percussion tattoo had been succeeded by mocking saxophone bellows harmonizing with elastic percussion that sounds as if they’re produced by striking upturned plastic milk cartons.

If anything that milk-carton sound is the disc’s leitmotif, though, whether it’s the result of Nunn’s noisemakers or Mihaly’s percussion isn’t made clear. The sound is certainly versatile enough, making its appearance at one point twisting around a funky rock beat on “Nobody likes the anti-septic lady”, which is also notable for Carroll’s barbed wire electric cello lines and some fulminating drum beats. Another time on “Return of the Wild Marian Fur” the unique tone adds to the acoustical guitar-cello blend that’s complementing Romus’ gangly alto solo.

Not that this CD lacks fervor. “Third Eye” features literal human screams, echoing Twilight Zone-style guitar riffs — which often sound like an uneasy marriage between lo-fi grunge and arena rock — plus outer space organ tones which may have migrated over from Sun Ra’s Arkestra. Amplified cello notes joust with Romus’ tart, tough vibrated split tones, both boogying on top of highly amplified percussion. Elsewhere, tympani echoes and thunderstorm crashes are never in short supply.

A variant of circus-like burlesque and parody appears in some of the tunes here and on the Ayler project, but the creations are a lot more serious on BLOOD. A trio set it’s more-or-less a showcase for Romus, who comes across as a sort of POMO Sonny Stitt. Alto saxophonist Stitt (1924 -1982) was the classic loner, moving from city to city and record date to record date, picking up a rhythm section wherever he landed and played variations on standards, rhythm tunes and the blues. He still managed to create some fine jazz free of artifice, though.

Obviously more focused than the older saxophonist, Romus here offers a combination of standards — in his case Charles Mingus’ “Better Get Hit In Your Soul” and Eric Dolphy’s “Out To Lunch” — and some funky originals. As for the backing musicians, the CD, which is sort of a souvenir of Romus’ first overseas tour to Denmark, links him with locals, bassist Jonas Westergaad and drummer Stefan Pasborg.

Actually the saxophonist is most impressive on “Better Git”. Using his best Hank- Crawford-out-of-John-Handy tone, he manages to play both the solo and the backing figures from the original performance. “Lunch” is treated unusually as well. Starting with a fusty, Dixieland sound he doubles its concentration by playing alto and soprano at the same time, at one point even getting involved in duetting with himself.

Surrounding all this are compositions that are pretty straightforward with their parameters boudoir saxophone blues practiced by the likes of Sam “The Man” Taylor and Jackie McLean-style neo-bop. You can’t charge the session with false advertising either. If something’s called “Break Tune”, then it’s literally that, the kind of blues-based set closer you’d hear in most jazz clubs, complete with staggered saxophone bomps, smash and grab drumming and steady Paul Chambers style bass.

However you don’t get much feeling for the rhythm section on the eight tunes, but it was probably planned that way. Since Romus was the American, the oldest (!) and most experienced musician, the bassist and drummer pretty much stay out of his way. What can be faulted, however, is the minimal packaging. Unlike the other sessions, there’s no listing of composer credits, recording date, place of recording or even which instruments are used.

Despite that, any one of these discs can serve as a proper introduction to Romus music in different configurations. Despite the varying contexts, he doesn’t play that differently on any outing. Between his entrepreneurial urges and his maturing solo abilities, you’re sure to hearing much more from him in the future.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Avatar: 1. Avatar in the Field 2. Holy Spirit 3. Intro to Zion Hill 4. Zion Hill 5. Aces for Albert 6. Vibrations 7. V/F Bright and Noble 8. Dancing Flowers 9. Snow Ghost 10. Our Prayer

Personnel: Avatar: Toyoji Tomita (trombone); Rent Romus (soprano and alto saxophones, piccolo, voice); Bill Noertker (bass, recorder); Dave Mihaly (drums, percussion, odd things)

Track Listing: PDK: 1. Vortex PKD 2. Ape of God 3. Third Eye 4. Nobody likes the anti-septic lady 5. March of the 80 foot Phils 6. Return of the Wild Marian Fur 7. Quest for Reality Part 1 8. Quest for Reality Part 2

Personnel: PDK: Rent Romus (soprano and alto saxophones, piccolo, voice); Joel Harrison (guitar); Doug Carroll (electric cello); Dave Mihaly (drums, percussion); Tom Nunn (electro acoustic inventions)

Track Listing: Lifeblood: 1. U R the 1 2. Better Get Hit In Your Soul 3. Blood Motions 4. Out To Lunch 5. Danish Nights 6. Break Tune 7. Up Side Down 8. Coffee

Personnel: Lifeblood: Rent Romus (soprano and alto saxophones); Jonas Westergaad (bass); Stefan Pasborg (drums)