Jazz had a great 20th century, but today it sits at a familiar critical impasse: evolve or decay. Everyone and his brother seems to enjoy name-checking a man named Davis, but most current jazz artists consider themselves lucky to sell ten thousand albums, living almost exclusively off their live shows. People may mention featherweight Adult Alternative diva Norah Jones, but this young woman, pleasant though she may be, fills a musical void much closer to Billy Joel than to Billie Holiday, much less Billy Bang. Some even seem complacent with the easy-listening radio conspiracy, where programmers quietly slip Vanessa Williams and Whitney Houston in unnoticed between Kenny G and alternate versions of “Take Five.”
Many practitioners of the electronic audio arts have sampled, simulated and imitated jazz, but few of their releases bore much similarity. The standard 4/4 electro beat is just too stiff and predictable to allow for effective improvisation. People within both camps are working to erase this lack of communication between genres with projects like Thirsty Ear’s Blue Series, curated by New York pianist Matthew Shipp. Alongside slightly more traditional offerings like veteran bassist William Parker’s Raining on the Moon, Shipp’s Nu-bop and drum ‘n’ bass duo Spring Heel Jack’s Masses were worthy efforts from talented players and producers who were surrounded by both the confines and the limitless potential of an electro-jazz hybrid. On this new album, Spring Heel’s John Coxon, a pop producer who’s worked with Spiritualized, and Ashley Wales enlist the help of Shipp and a group of stellar European free players for a jam session founded on beatless electronic textures.
Spring Heel Jack knows very well the art of restraint. “Double Cross” starts as an atmospheric conversation between Edwards’ bass and Evan Parker’s soprano. The two are backed by digitally tarnished string swells that drip into a toneless tinny discord, only serving to reinforce the jagged sax lines. The pace picks up with the title track, where Han Bennink’s drum rolls join and Shipp’s Fender Rhodes keyboard rings like Bitches Brew-era Miles. Two minutes in, the floor collapses and a great soprano/trumpet screaming match ensues on top of guitarist Jason Pierce, aka J Spaceman, who has gleefully disowned his Spiritualized stadium soul for a feedback haze.
“Wormwood” hangs in the air indecisively for several minutes, covered in a lumbering ambient wash of snare taps, muffled horns and whammy-bar freakouts. It is a low note, but still ends well with a subtle Shipp solo dirge. “Lit” is the album’s juicy center, a quiet lullaby dropped into an acidic tank of noise, and its organ chords and tearing-paper sample support Parker’s delicate solo notes like a metallic cloud. Rushing water and percussive squeaks lead directly into “Maroc,” another unbelievable track based around a continuous, convoluted sax solo tunneling into Pierce’s amplifier. Parker doesn’t even surface for air as he fights and wins a battle between rapid brass stabs and controlled feedback hiss.
A distant piano recording opens “100 years before” and the piece’s ragged horn wails wriggle around a beautifully sampled trombone rise. “Duel” pits Parker and Bennink against Spring Heel’s single-pounding piano chords, but the endlessly repeated key strike moves to negate the powerful drumming underneath. By the single bass bump sample that drives “Obscured,” the group has begun to exhaust their previously boundless energies. The pattern grows tiresome before the earnest trials of all involved disintegrate into directionless banter. Yes, an overly tolerant editing process has tacked a few unnecessary minutes onto this disc, but the overall cohesion of the eight tracks doesn’t suffer excessively as a result.
Many of the indie rock or techno persuasion may dismiss this album as a self-indulgent exercise in instrumental noodling. If free jazz is a language you don’t speak, Amassed will not rank as your epiphany. There is real joy in hearing such skilled players go at it with no real song structure to hold them back, but the record’s greatest fun may be a difficulty in distinguishing acoustic instruments from electronic noise. Amassed is only a slight variation on a musical pattern that has gone unheard far too many times before, but the willingness of these two worlds to collaborate successfully bodes well for the future of a relationship between jazz and electronica, and I give the guys an extra half-point for effort. Like-minded meetings of tradition and technology include Squarepusher’s Music is Rotted One Note, Jan Jelinek/Computer Soup’s Improvisations and Edits, and Cinematic Orchestra’s Every Day. But for those truly wishing to fill the lonely shelf in their media bin labeled “unbearably pretentious crap,” I believe Ken Burns’ entire Jazz series is now available on DVD.