September Recordings 2000

September New Releases reviewed by Dan Warburton:
Heiner Goebbels: Surrogate Cities
New additions to the Vandermark discography
Arthur Doyle Trio: A Prayer for Peace
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Heiner Goebbels
reviewed by DAN WARBURTON
ECM New Series 1688

It's always a little sad to see one of your favorite musicians come toppling off their pedestal. Despite its classy photography and impeccable recording, this album is a disappointment. Goebbels (on a roll since the mid 90s thanks to commissions left, right and center) sounds like he wrote this in a hurry - he's also prone to recycling: theater piece for the Ensemble Modern "Black on White" uses many of the same samples (cf. the "Chaconne/Kantorloops"), which, especially the old 1930s recordings of Jewish religious song, are extremely beautiful. Goebbels, to his credit, is one of the few "traditional" composers who really understands how to use the sampler - but where "Black on White" works, the same material here sounds oddly out of place coming as it does at the beginning of the album rather than half way through. I say beginning of the album rather than work because the original concert version of "Surrogate Cities" (first performed in Frankfurt on August 31st 1994) featured four pieces not included here, and also ordered the compositions differently: the Paris premiere which I saw in October 1994 (I am supposing Goebbels used the same program order as in the world premiere) began with a bang with the orchestral piece "D&C" while the album starts with the "Suite for Sampler and Orchestra". In choosing (having?) to release the piece as a single album, we've lost "Die Faust im Wappen" (after Kakfa), "In the Country of Last Things I", "Rewind Further" and "Die Stadt und die Toten 4 / Argia" (after Italo Calvino), and the urban subtext to which Goebbels alludes in the scant ECM liner notes lacks flesh, and even verges on the pretentious.

Extra-musical considerations aside, the major problem with "Surrogate Cities" though is the full orchestra and Goebbels' writing for it; most of this music sounds as if it was done at a keyboard and then orchestrated (no bad thing in itself - Stravinsky did it very well - provided that the result doesn't sound as if it was written at a keyboard and then orchestrated...). Exposed melodic figures are often doubled, more often than not by the piano (à la Copland), either because the composer is afraid that a solo instrument will not be able to carry the line (against the surrounding orchestral forces?), or because he wants, in a perverse sort of way, to impress the listener ("Wow... that's a really tricky passage... and they must be really good because they can play it together in unison!"). Either way, it comes across sounding not like Copland (one of the first to successfully incorporate the piano into the standard symphony orchestra), but more like a third generation sub- Hollywood imitation of John Adams trying to imitate Copland. In point of fact, though Goebbels writes fabulously for small ensembles, he could do to take some orchestration lessons from Adams, who at least has the good taste to pillage good twentieth-century music, from Stravinsky to Prokofiev to Bartok. If the "Suite" and "D&C" were reorchestrated for smaller forces, they might perhaps sound authentically dramatic and not merely bombastic.

Even so, there would still be the music itself, the notes. I seriously wonder what Heiner Müller, Goebbels' erstwhile friend and collaborator and the poetic conscience of the old East Germany, would make of this setting of his "The Horatian" if he were still alive to hear it. OK, so Goebbels is well-known for his enthusiasm for Prince (he even based an entire work, "La Reprise", on the Purple One's "Joy in Repetition" from the (otherwise lousy) "Graffiti Bridge" album), and he may well have a problem with operatic sopranos (not necessarily a bad thing), but the spineless sugary gush of these songs makes your flesh creep. Singer Jocelyn Smith (at first I thought it was Jocelyn Brown, she of the 80s disco funk hit "Somebody Else's Guy"... it might well have been, as it turns out) is the perfect choice, a horrendous cross between Julie Covington and Whitney Houston (ooh, the way she rolls those r's... pass the sickbag, Alice...). As for David Moss, I seem to remember that in "Die Faust im Wappen" in the version of the piece I saw in 1994 he got up to his usual tricks (i.e. Phil Minton without the psychiatric hospital), whereas here his extraordinary vocal talents aren't called upon: he's merely cast as the Great American Dramatic Voice. That Goebbels chose to set Paul Auster ("In the Country of Last Things") may be significant: Auster, like Goebbels, started out interesting (the poor man's Pynchon of the "New York Trilogy" still hasn't been surpassed) and, as the $ began to flow, ended up churning out the mawkish sentimentality of "Smoke" and, worse, the cheap rip-off bullshit of "Brooklyn Boogie". "Surrogate Cities" is a depressing indication that Heiner Goebbels might be going the same way. But once you're up on that pedestal, the only way left to go is down.

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The Vandermark discography

Vandermark / Drake / McBride
Atavistic ALP120CD
Boxholder BXH006
The Vandermark 5
Atavistic ALP

The Vandermark discography continues to grow at an alarming rate (makes you wonder if he isn't trying to outdo David Murray), though there is - dare I suggest - a bit of product marketing involved with "Spaceways Incorporated" (is that the group, or the album title?). On paper, an album of Sun Ra and Funkadelic covers is a financially interesting proposition; interest in Messrs. Blount and Clinton has probably never been greater (witness Ken Hollings' intriguing space travel feature in The Wire recently), and with Hamid Drake on board - surely the only drummer who could conceivably take it to the stage with both the Arkestra and the Mothership - it sounds like it should be a smash hit for Atavistic, right? Well, I'm not convinced. The choice of Ra covers is astute (though I'd swap all six of them for James Carter's inspired reading of "Hour of Parting" on the "JC On the Set" album) - it's good to see people playing "Bassism" and "Tapestry from an Asteroid", both from the 1961 "Futuristic Sounds" album, which has been somewhat overlooked in recent years. However, the Funkadelic material sounds forced, as if Vandermark, McBride and Drake were trying very hard to have a good time. Choosing to cover "Cosmic Slop" is taking a hell of a gamble - KV's chirpy rendition of the original vocal line sounds awfully tame compared to the searing intensity of the lyric; "I can hear my mother cry" just doesn't cut it as "toot toot toot toot too-toot toooot". Nate McBride is a great bassist, but he isn't Bootsy Collins or Boogie Mosson (no amount of wah pedal can change that), and even Drake, who can lay down a (pardon my French) motherfucker of a groove when he wants to sounds disinterested and staid.

Sure, there's some "funk" but very little "adelic" - remember that the crucial difference between Clinton's outfits Funkadelic and Parliament was that the latter was all horns and hooks, while Funkadelic was a heavily psychedelic guitar-based sound. This trio can make certainly produce the decibels, but without Hazel, Shider and Cooper (not to mention George himself), they haven't succeeded in convincing this P-Funkateer.

The Boxholder release is a different kettle of fish. Go back two years (another recording that has only just seen the light of day... what else has KV got under his bed?), remove Drake and add Curt Newton, stick to original material, give everybody the chance to really stretch out and the end result (not to mention the recording quality itself) is ten times better. This is Vandermark's "Boston" trio (his associations with Curt Newton go back as far as 1986, and Newton was featured on the Barrage Double Trio's seminal "Utility Hitter" four years back). Since Tripleplay was designed as a working unit that could get together and play with minimum rehearsals, Vandermark came up with simple material as a framework for improvisation, as opposed to the more intricately arranged stuff he's used to dealing out to the Vandermark 5. His model in this, according to his liner notes, was Don Cherry's "Complete Communion" Blue Note classic with Barbieri, Blackwell and Grimes, but of course the sax/bass/drums trio line-up inevitably leads to comparison with Air, and Newton and McBride could be the best trio rhythm team since McCall and Hopkins (and McBride's two compositions "Daka Du" and "Hook and Ladder" are just as strong and flexible as the bassist's playing). I look forward to more from these three (as long as they promise not to cover George Clinton, that is).

Meanwhile, The Vandermark 5 have already established themselves as one of the references of today's new jazz (along with the Ware quartet, Eskelin/Parker/Black, Test and William Parker's In Order To Survive), a genuinely synthetic - in the real sense of the word - group, in which the whole history of jazz since Bird is present in one form or another (in this respect they could take up where Zorn's Masada left off). "Burn the Incline" is yet another impressive showcase for their talents, running the gamut from hard-swinging post-bop ("The Cooler") through intricate balladry ("Late Night Wait Around") to highly structured heads ("Roulette") and gutsy free blowing - sounds like Jeb Bishop has been brushing up on his Sharrock! It seems churlish to pick holes, but if a criticism ought to be made it concerns the themes themselves, which don't always... stick in the head (not a question of complexity - wildly difficult compositions like, say, Dolphy's "Miss Ann" and Steve Coleman's "Ice Moves" can still get under your skin though I'll bet you can't sing along with the changes). By choosing to stay more or less with the standard head-solos-head form - one of the few things these days that concretely differentiates jazz from improvised music, in a strictly musicological sense - one supposes that the heads are of structural importance for KV and his men in terms of defining aspects of the improvisation that follows (of course, they don't have to be: the canon of free jazz includes many pieces that begin with clear thematic material and subsequently blast off into the stratosphere of unfettered and inspired improvisation...). Assuming this to be the case, maybe the years to come will see Vandermark refining his compositional skills and writing really great themes; after all, he's spent enough time recently with the likes of Joe Harriott, Misha Mengelberg, Sun Ra and George Clinton to have picked up a few good hooks...

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Arthur Doyle Trio
Zugswang 0002

"You wanna go out fast and furious?" And we're OFF - "Prayer for Peace" kicks in with the same spine-chilling tenor shriek that opened Doyle's classic "Alabama Feeling" 22 years ago. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then, including collaborations with Rudolph Grey, Alan Silva, Keiji Haino and Sunny Murray, and even if Doyle hasn't quite got the lungpower he had back in 78, the passion is still there. Here he's in a trio with Jim Linton (bass, cornet...) and Scott Rodziczak (drums). A Doyle album always comes as something of a shock in these days of crystal- clear state-of-the-art recordings of free jazz from the likes of Aum Fidelity, KFW, and Tzadik; the raw direct-to-2 track DAT sound quality - though admittedly nowhere near as no-fi as Doyle's solo offerings "Songwriter" and "Plays and Sings from the Songbook" - is unsettling at first, though the life-force of this music quickly overrides superficial aesthetic considerations (even so, the cover "art" of the album is perhaps left unmentioned...).

Equally unsettling for newcomers are Doyle's vocals, which can come across as stoned ranting (an impression not helped perhaps by two track titles referring to "potheads") but are in fact the quintessence of his improvising practice: his thematic material often takes the form of brief, iambic, almost naïve melodic cells, and this recording makes it absolutely clear that his tenor, flute and recorder function as natural extensions of his body/voice. Hence perhaps the appellation "free jazz soul" - important point: don't forget Doyle once worked with Donny Hathaway and Gladys Knight - given the descent of today's Soul music into New Jack heavy breathing with gangsta attitude, overproduced synth gadgetry and MTV-driven crud, "Prayer for Peace"' is about the closest you're likely to get this year to real soul music.

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Copyright 2000 by Paris Transatlantic